Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Pity that people have to die for us to appreciate them

Belated thanks, Willis Whitfield.

If you didn't already know:

Half a century ago, as a rapidly changing world sought increasingly smaller mechanical and electrical components and more sanitary hospital conditions, one of the biggest obstacles to progress was air, and the dust and germs it contains.

Stray particles a few microns wide could compromise the integrity of a circuit board of a nuclear weapon. Unchecked bacteria could quickly infect a patient after a seemingly successful operation. Microprocessors, not yet in existence, would have been destroyed by dust. After all, an average cubic foot of air contained three million microscopic particles, and even the best efforts at vacuuming and wiping down a high-tech work space could only reduce the rate to one million.

Then, in 1962, Willis Whitfield invented the clean room.

Which brings to mind a favorite piece of understatement, from the first article on nanotechnology that I ever read, thirty or so years ago: At these scales, a drop of oil is not a lubricant.

Gotta love this part:

Particle detectors in Mr. Whitfield’s clean rooms started showing numbers so low — a thousand times lower than other methods — that some people did not believe the readings, or Mr. Whitfield. He was questioned so much that he began understating the efficiency of his method to keep from shocking people.

“I think Whitfield’s wrong,” a scientist from Bell Labs finally said at a conference where Mr. Whitfield spoke. “It’s actually 10 times better than he’s saying.”

And of course, no blog post would be complete without a salute to the superiority of the free market, unencumbered by gummint regulation!

The clean room was patented through Sandia, and the government shared it freely among manufacturers, hospitals and other industries.

(pic. source: Sandia Lab News (PDF) | h/t: KK, via email)

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