by Dorothy Hussey

What do the miners and mine owners of the Spruce Pine area (Avery, Mitchell, Yancey counties) have in common with the engineers of Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, California? Quartz (SiO2), the purest in the world, is mined here for silicon chips. Almost all other mining in the area has closed down at present.

The development of the silicon chip revolutionized the computer industry and the business world. The first computer, developed in 1950, was room-sized. Now they are reduced to as small as laptop. Almost every business has switched to computers and they are becoming increasingly common in homes. One sees people working on them in restaurants, planes, and in waiting rooms. People are able to work at home via computer hookup to the office. Information can be readily brought up and printed out in seconds from anywhere in the world.

The first computers had resistors with wires attached to boards. They were easily broken. The first microprocessor computer silicon chip was developed at Intel Corp. in the Silicon Valley, now the silicon chip capital of the world. The size of the thumbnail, it is the central processing unit of the microprocessor. A single chip replaced many transistors which were much more expensive to produce. Silicon chips seldom fail. Electrical circuits travel much faster due to shorter distance travel time with the shorter connections. Speed has increased dramatically and prices have been reduced. New concepts are being developed all the time. Computers have more on them and have become much cheaper during the last year. Silicon makes control of electricity very precise by adding other chemicals. An oxidized coating on the quartz insulates and protects the chip.

The basic ingredient of the chip, a four to six inch quartz crystal, is sliced into very thin wafers on which circuits are etched. They are bathed in chemicals as they are etched and built into wafers from one to two inches thick. One etched slice of silicon many have more than 50,000 circuits etched on it. Numbers increase each year. The wafers are cut into pieces called dice. One wafer may have more than 1,000 pieces. They are put into plastic cases with prongs and, after a thorough testing, are installed. A computer may have more than 100,000 circuits; a watch, 5,000 and a calculator, 5,000.

The uses of computers increase each year. Those thousands of a second by which Olympic medals are won or lost, are computer produced. Our children start games on them in kindergarten and their knowledge of them increases each year. They have changed forever all office procedures, art, design, architecture, movies, television, advertising, auditing and accounting, communications, reservations, graphs, you name it. They tell us what happened in the past and predict the future. The saddest day in the life of an office worker is the day one programs the computer which is to take over the office job.

So, the quartz of Western North Carolina has contributed to an invention which has revolutionized the world and produced The Silicon Connection.

Reprinted from Mountain Mineral Monthly, Vol.62 Number 2, February 1993. Used by permission.