How Switzerland Lost Out To Japan In Watch Chips

Jean Hoerni, one of the ‘treacherous eight’ who left Shockley Semiconductor to co-found Fairchild Semiconductor, was Swiss. At Fairchild, Hoerni invented the planar transistor which was the key to Bob Noyce’s invention of the integrated circuit. Hoerni left Fairchild to found successively Amelco, Union Carbide and Intersil. When he founded Intersil he tapped a couple of Swiss watch companies, Omega and Portescap, for venture capital.

So when Hoerni he came up with the idea of using MOS ICs in watches in 1969, it was natural for him to suggest to his Swiss backers that they give him a $75,000 development contract to come up with suitable chips.

But his backers had gone to a technological consultancy which had advised them that Hoerni’s proposal was technically impractical. His backers turned him down.

Hoerni then flew directly from Switzerland to Japan where he met Shoji Hattori, Chairman of Seiko, and inked the deal.

Ten years later, most of Japan’s watch output was chip-based rather than mechanical, and the Swiss watch industry very nearly went to the wall.



  1. Thanks Tim, that’s very interesting. I see there’s a Micro Power Systems in existence today but I don’t think it’s the same one.

  2. There’s a bit more to the story as well. The basis for this work was a patent by John H. Hall, 3,437,888, for the thin-film resistor technology used in the watch IC, he was working with Hoerni at the time and later at Intersil. Was talking about this with John last week. Hall set up Micro Power Systems with funding from Hattori.

  3. Chris you are half right. The company I’m talking about is Union Carbide’s IC operation not the original Union Carbide company which was founded many years before the semiconductor industry existed. After leaving Amelco, Hoerni worked as a consultant for Union Carbide which wanted to set up an IC operation, In 1966 Union Carbide decided to invest $10m in a chip company to make MTL but, by then, Hoerni had had enough exiting with the memorable line (delivered in strongly French-accented English: “Semiconductors are not Union Carbide cup of tea”. Hoerni then founded Intersil with $300,000 of his own money but Arthur Rock soon rustled up a lot more from some VCs plus Olivetti. Portescap and Omega.

  4. Whatever companies Jean Hoerni may have founded I am pretty sure that Union Carbide wasn’t one of them. Union Carbide was founded in 1917 but Jean Hoerni wasn’t born until 1924.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *