Fathers of the MOSFET: Dawon Kahng and Martin Atalla

December 14, 2021 by Tyler Charboneau

Though MOSFET technology is a staple in the semiconductor industry, it wasn't always the case. Let's dive into the men behind the tech: Dawon Kahng and Martin (John) Atalla.

Today's most popular transistor technology in digital circuits, the metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET), is renowned for its dynamic conductivity based on applied voltages. Those capabilities have supported innumerable electronic devices since their inception. However, such innovation didn't spontaneously materialize. 


An overview of a P-channel (left) and N-channel (right) MOSFETs.

An overview of a P-channel (left) and N-channel (right) MOSFETs. Image used courtesy of The Engineering Projects


Follow along as we share Dawon Kahng and Martin Atalla's stories, the MOSFET's inventors, and two of today's most influential EE figureheads. 


The Life of Dawon Kahng

Born in South Korea, Dr. Dawon Kahng was a physics enthusiast at heart. As a lifelong academic with a world-class nose for research, Kahng earned his B.S. in Physics at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, housed within Seoul National University. 

Just one year later, he'd travel to the United States for graduate and post-graduate studies. He'd soon earn both his master's and doctorate degrees in physics from Ohio State University, thus concluding his collegiate studies in 1959, which kicked off a celebrated engineering career that lasted roughly 33 years.  

Kahng's physics foundation ignited his interest in semiconductor research. He began a devoted, 29-year stint at Bell Telephone Laboratories, which had already gained acclaim as an incubator for semiconductor research. 

Just 12 years prior, in 1947, the Lab's own William Shockley created the bipolar junction transistor (BJT), which was generally better suited for low-powered electronics unbound by strict efficiency needs. Conversely, the MOSFET is a highly efficient alternative, namely for both battery-powered and higher-powered applications.


Martin Atalla (left) and Dawon Kahng (right).

Martin Atalla (left) and Dawon Kahng (right). Image used courtesy of the Computer History Museum 


In 1960, Kahng soon met with Martin (John) Atalla, and the pair jumpstarted their collaborative research into MOSFET technology, which soon came to fruition. Their early design was successful thanks to its low power consumption and small-scale manufacturing compatibility. 

The semiconductor world would soon explode into mass production, however. The industry focused on CPU and DRAM, and Dawon developed yet another breakthrough MOSFET approach by 1967. 


Kahng (left) and Sze's (right) depiction of the first floating gate. Image used courtesy of IEEE, Simon Deleonibus, and Simon Sze


Alongside Simon Sze, he solved a longstanding problem with memory volatility caused by power disconnection. Kahng's contributed heavily to developing the floating gate, which leveraged thin oxide films and gates to store data persistently. Overall, Kahng's work paved the way for modern flash memory, ROM, and other transistor units commonly used today. 


Personal and Professional Achievements

This work and other pursuits made Dawon a decorated researcher during and after his career. He helped author over 35 research papers and secured 22 patents. However, his 1963 MOSFET patent and accompanying floating gate paper are his crowning achievements, the latter of which is still referenced quite often.

Otherwise, Dr. Kahng earned the following accolades: 

  • The first president of the NEC Institute from 1988 to 1992
  • Named IEEE Fellow in 1988
  • Became a life member of the Korea Physics Society and an advisor for LG Electronics
  • 1975 recipient of the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal
  • 1986 Proud Alumnus Award on behalf of Ohio State University
  • Inducted in 2009 into the National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • Became the inspiration for 2017’s debut Dawon Kahng Award, via the Korea Semiconductor Conference

Though Kahng passed in 1992, his legacy in the electrical engineering field undeniably outlived him. His work with SiO2 films and novel gating approaches unlocked a whole new level of transistor complexity. 


The Life of Martin Atalla

Born in Port Said, Egypt, Dr. Martin Atalla became an academic and professional nomad in his own right. He received his bachelor's degree at Cairo University before traveling to the United States. Atalla attended Purdue University for his master's and doctoral studies, earning mechanical engineering degrees in 1947 and 1949. His 1949 debut with Bell Labs preceded Kahng's by 12 years. 

During this time, Atalla investigated the surface properties of semiconductors and quickly found ways to help electricity reach the semiconducting layer of a chipset. He was able to achieve this by growing silicon dioxide layers atop silicon wafers. This process became known as surface passivation, and it paved the way for the widespread adoption of semiconductor technologies. 

As mentioned, it wasn't until 1959 that Martin and Dawon Kahng would finally cross paths. Atalla, having acquired some seniority at Bell, actually handed the responsibility of MOSFET creation to Kahng. Atalla believed that MOSFET technology was the way forward and that metal-oxide-silicon was a sustainable composition for years to come. The pair presented its brainchild at a 1960 conference to much acclaim. 

Interestingly, it's said that Bell Labs was relatively uninterested in MOSFET technology when Atalla first proposed it. His chipset ideas wouldn't receive serious consideration until 1963. Both RCA and Fairchild researchers developed their own complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS).


A New Chapter Following Bell

Compared to his former colleague, Kahng, Martin Atalla possessed a strong entrepreneurial streak that fueled many businesses' formations. After an abrupt split from Bell Laboratories, he immediately helped found Hewlett-Packard Associates. Martin also founded Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, where he led the group's solid-state division. 

From 1973 onward, Atalla ventured off on his own and accomplished the following: 

  • Founded his namesake company, Atalla Corporation
  • Founded and chaired A4 Systems, and later TriStrata
  • Honored as a Purdue Distinguished Engineering Alumnus in 2002
  • Merged his company with Tandem Computers in 1987

While Atalla withdrew from research and embraced retirement, this reprieve was short-lived. Several bank executives encouraged him to tackle banking and internet security. Having already invented the "Atalla Box" and PIN system, Martin returned to help revolutionize information management security. A truly multi-talented professional, Martin Atalla later passed in Atherton, California, in 2009. 


Moving Technology Forward

Without a doubt, Kahng and Atalla—both collectively and individually—moved the technological realm forward in ways their predecessors could scarcely envision. From security to circuitry, each man’s ambition and curiosity birthed numerous projects throughout their lives.

Regarding MOSFETs specifically, MOS technology accounts for roughly 99% of today’s microchips. Additionally, today’s elaborate chips have evolved mightily from their 16-transistor forerunners. It remains to be seen when our next dynamic engineering duo will (potentially) arise, though they’ll draw plenty of inspiration from this powerful pair. 

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