Vintage Whine

Fairchild, Part 4

The last three Vintage Whine columns have looked at the pro and consumer audio companies owned by Sherman Fairchild, with a side-look at his many other holdings. We began in Copper #75 with Part 1; Copper#76 had Part 2; Copper #77 had Part 3.

I can honestly say I’ve never encountered such a complex web of interconnected and interrelated companies as those carrying the Fairchild name, nor have I encountered another serial entrepreneur with Fairchild’s  deep interest in music and audio. There truly is a fascinating story waiting to be written about his life and the dozens of companies that bore his name. Rather than turn Vintage Whine into a one-note column, we’ll wrap up this topic with an overview in this column.

As mentioned in Part 1, Sherman Fairchild’s father was one of the founders of the company that became IBM, and was the first Chairman of IBM. Upon his father’s death, Sherman became the largest single shareholder in IBM—a status he would hold until his own death in 1971.

It would be true, therefore, to say that Fairchild came from wealth. The picture below is of the family home in Oneonta, New York— which is now the Oneonta Masonic Lodge. By modern-day gazillionaire standards it seems almost modest, but I’m sure it was comfortable.

Wealthy or no, Sherman Fairchild was no dilettante or dawdler: His interest in photography led to numerous patents, the founding of aerial photography as a tool for both reconnaissance and mapping, turning a hobby into a major business..which led to other businesses: purpose-built aircraft for aerial photography led to passenger aircraft. Motion picture cameras led to talking movies which led to sound recording gear—and on and on.

And when World War II came, Fairchild aerial cameras were vital tools for reconnaissance (like the F-56 camera shown below), another Fairchild company produced thousands of trainer planes used in pilot training, Fairchild electrical computing gunsights were widely used, and all manner of tactical devices for the war effort carried the Fairchild name.

After the war ended, management of Fairchild Camera decided to sell off or shut down the audio division, which was an early developer of reel-to-reel recorders based upon the Magnetophon technology brought over from Germany. The high standards and high prices of the audio division’s products made it unprofitable; rather than see the technology and talent disappear, amateur jazz pianist/recordist Sherman Fairchild personally bought the division, and renamed it Fairchild Recording Equipment. We’ve already mentioned the lasting value and desirability of a number of Fairchild studio products, including the 660 and 670 compressors (a 670 is shown atop the page).

Fairchild’s home audio products were also well thought out and built to last—meaning, again, they weren’t cheap. As the stereo age emerged, Fairchild mono amps were still viable, and the model 245 mono preamplifier could be stacked to form a stereo unit, with an overall volume selector added. Marantz did something similar with the original Audio Consolette (Model 1), which was stacked and sold as a stereo unit as the Model 6.

The 260 mono amplifier was every bit as overbuilt as anything from McIntosh, Marantz, or Fisher—but is rarely seen these days. Perhaps the battleship gray finish is just not as appealing as the bling of those other amps.

The ’50s also saw Fairchild aircraft and cameras used in the Korean war, and Fairchild cameras were utilized in the reconnaissance flyovers of the cold war—and then in the first efforts of NASA, and sadly, again in war use in Vietnam.

In 1957, a group of young physicists and scientists were working for Thomas Shockley, the inventor of the transistor, at his company Shockley Semiconductor, near Palo Alto. Shockley was famously difficult to work with or for, being dismissive, paranoid, and abusive. The group decided to start their own company to develop products for the burgeoning field of silicon semiconductors, and called upon New York financier Arthur Rock to find them financing for a start-up company.

Rock struck out with a number of companies who didn’t understand the potential of transistors—but Sherman Fairchild agreed to provide $1.5 million to fund the group. Shockley referred to the group as “The Traitorous Eight”. When the group began in June of 1957, they didn’t even have contracts—so they all symbolically signed a dollar bill.

Among the group were Robert Noyce, who would become known as one of two inventors of the microchip, and Gordon Moore, whose “Moore’s Law” has survived for decades as a paradigm of growth of the computer industry. Noyce and Moore would leave within a few years to start Intel.

Fairchild’s funding of The Traitorous Eight, facilitated by Arthur Rock, marked the birth of Silicon Valley. Rock—and later Eugene Kleiner, who funded Intel—were the pioneers in venture capital funding for tech companies. Rock is still alive and revered as the Godfather of the industry by today’s Valley VC types; Kleiner went on to form Kleiner Perkins, which funded AOL, Compaq, Genentech, Amazon, Google, and dozens of other companies which came to be worth uncounted billions.

Fairchild’s wide-ranging holdings brought him to the cover of Time magazine in 1960. At that point Fairchild companies were involved with the development of Cinerama, video tape recorders, a full range of pro audio gear including microphones and transcription turntables, improved cargo planes for use in Vietnam, new generations of cameras for use on satellites and for the projected manned space flights—among many other fields.

Around that same period, Noyce, Moore, and Fairchild (L-R) were photographed in the Fairchild Semiconductor facility. For a wealthy guy, Fairchild could’ve used a better tailor!

The number of companies directly or indirectly spun off of Fairchild Semiconductor is hard to calculate. If you Google the term “Fairchildren”– you’ll encounter numerous different family trees like the one below. Estimates of  the number of offspring run into the several hundreds.

Two other things must be said of Sherman Fairchild: he never stopped learning, exploring, and looking for ways to do things better; and he actually seemed to have fun. His modernist mansion in New York near Central Park featured a room with two grand pianos adjacent to a fully-equipped recording studio. Fairchild enjoyed music, was reputedly a fair pianist himself, and often recorded jazz musicians in his home. Photographer Hank O’Neal’s blog provides fascinating details of Fairchild’s life and passions, including a record company started by Fairchild, O’Neal, and jazz pianist Marian McPartland. Over the years, Fairchild’s love of sound had led him to work with audio pioneers including “Buzz” Reeves, Bob Fine, Lawrence Scully, and many others.

O’Neal’s blog also provides sad details of Fairchild’s death in 1971—in a hospital he helped to build. Fairchild undoubtedly had numerous new fields left to explore and develop.

Fairchild never married, and upon his death, the bulk of his $200M estate went to the Fairchild Foundation and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation. Both are still in existence, endowing a variety of educational and charitable endeavors. It’s difficult to imagine anyone today making their mark in as many different and disparate fields as did Sherman Fairchild. It’s even harder to imagine that such a person would make major contributions to the world of audio.

[Special thanks to Tom Fine for his insights and information—Ed.]