The 1st Cleanroom

Summary : The cleanroom was invented in the early 1960s by Willis Whitfield, while working at Sandia National Laboratories solving contamination control issues.

The 1st Cleanroom

It’s hard to believe, but the cleanroom wasn’t invented until 1960 and it wasn’t invented for the semiconductor industry. While obviously rooms that were clean existed before that. But they were just air-conditioned rooms with turbulent air that recycled the air with the particles in it. What was needed was a way to remove the air particles coming into the room as well as remove those already in it so they didn’t fall on what was being made. True cleanrooms had to be invented.

In the early 1960s Willis Whitfield, the inventor, was working at Sandia National Laboratories solving contamination control issues. Sandia was making parts for nuclear weapons. To solve the problem, he conceived of a room where air pushed through filters, came out of the ceiling, and was evacuated through the floor to form a laminar flow. This way, even particles in the room air would be swept away, solving the problem of particles being generated by activities the cleanroom, such as people moving around, repairing tools, and machines and robots operating. It is amazing how little actions can generate particles in the air. For example, the simple act of screwing a number 10 nut onto a number 10 screw generates 10,000-micron fine metal particles.

The cleanroom was patented by Sandia National Laboratories in 1962. It would later be adopted by the semiconductor industry and many others that needed particulate-free air. Willis’s concept of a cleanroom would be developed into a multi-billion dollar industry that also learned to put cleanroom workers in ‘bunny suits’ and masks that prevent particles in the breath, clothing or on the skin from getting into the air.

— Many thanks to Herbert Blaschitz of Exyte for the inspiration and support to bring this part of history to the Chip History Center

 

Early conception of a cleanroom. Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

 

Willis Whitfield leaving an early clean room. Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

 

Annexure :

It’s hard to believe, but the cleanroom wasn’t invented until 1960 and it wasn’t invented for the semiconductor industry. While obviously rooms that were clean existed before that. But they were just air-conditioned rooms with turbulent air that recycled the air with the particles in it. What was needed was a way to remove the air particles coming into the room as well as remove those already in it so they didn’t fall on what was being made. True cleanrooms had to be invented.

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