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13 June 2024

Chris Dobson, co-founder of one of the UK’s most successful semiconductor-fabrication-equipment companies, has been giving back to Cambridge for more than two decades. He was born in Wales shortly before the outbreak of World War 2 and, as a result, in his early years he remembers always  being hungry. He didn’t particularly enjoy school until 6th form (in Newport, where the council paid all his tuition fees and gave him a living allowance). Here he was influenced by a particularly good Physics teacher who converted him from his previous principal interest in Chemistry. In those days applicants were required to complete their National Service before gaining a place at Oxbridge and, after a particularly intensive period of electronics training with the Royal Air Force, he enjoyed working as ground-crew at Boscombe Down. This 3 involved work as an air radar fitter on the cutting-edge aircraft technology of ‘planes such as the Valiant, Vulcan, and Victor, as well as the Fairey Delta, which then held the world air-speed record. 

Having missed the award of a scholarship to Jesus College Oxford, Chris instead gained a place at Selwyn College to read Natural Sciences here at Cambridge, matriculating in 1957. Although holding an unusually large number of A-levels for the time (four), he did have to achieve a then-required Latin qualification before arrival. He initially planned to graduate in Physics, but fate had it that Chris was directed into Metallurgy for his final year, and he greatly enjoyed this, at a time when Alan Cottrell was Head of Department. 

Following his degree, and with his previous RAF electronics training, he became an electronics engineer at ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation) working on, amongst other things, an early computer: the ZEBRA. A move to extensive new research and development facilities at STL (Standard Telecommunication Laboratories), Harlow, is described by Chris as ‘marvellous: it was like a university with money!’ He worked in the Semiconductor Laser Group on early GaAs laser development and was just pipped at the post to an important patent in the field by the extremely well-resourced Bell Labs in the US.

Subsequently, their employer’s directive to move to a production facility, led Chris and three colleagues to decide upon forming a business for themselves. They moved to a factory site in South Wales and planned a remote-control device for domestic use (e.g. secure door-opening) which, in 1968, turned out to be about 40 years ahead of its time! Instead, they developed a very successful company, Electrotech, providing equipment for semiconductor-device fabrication. Their products advanced from high-vacuum metal deposition, patterning by plasma etching, plasma-deposited  insulating layers, and finally sputtered-metal-deposition systems. Very few other companies were, at the time, able to compete with the aluminium etching methods they developed for patterning wafers. Electrotech, later Trikon Technologies, expanded to around 600 employees and offices around the world (e.g. Germany, France, Japan and the US), meaning that Chris found himself having to travel extensively (though he’d rather have been able to stay at home with his family). In 1996 the company was bought out by a US firm: Plasma & Materials Technologies Inc., with Chris staying on as Chairman.

He then decided to take time off to return to academia, and enrolled for a PhD in our Department, with a project based upon a new idea for switching from aluminium to copper for via-filling in semiconductor manufacture. He’d always hankered after a doctorate! Chris was extremely appreciative of all the support given by his supervisor, Prof. Lindsay Greer, and he was awarded his PhD in 2002. He, and his beloved wife Ann, also appreciated the warm welcome they both received from members of Lindsay’s research group, and they enjoyed many happy social occasions together.

Following the sale of Electrotech, Ann set up The Ann D Foundation, a charity providing educational opportunities; and she and Chris together contributed to the initial funding of Ann’s Court, at Selwyn College, completed in 2020 and representing a very substantial lasting tribute to Ann. Chris is now an Honorary Fellow of the College. The Department is deeply grateful to Chris and Ann for their philanthropy over the years, for example supporting the fit-out of the new building, which houses the Ann D Teaching Laboratories. And now, through yet further generosity, we will benefit from the Dobson Professorship endowed in perpetuity, and from the Dobson Studentship Fund supporting PhD students. 

In recent years, since Ann’s untimely death, Chris has taken a new track and is writing a book on the subject of the influence of fire on human bipedalism, which delves into links with the practice of cooking food, rather than eating items raw. He has thrown himself into the associated research, with personal trials of tasting various uncooked (often extremely unappetising!) morsels.

Looking back on an exceptionally successful business career, Chris comments upon his ‘lucky break’ in landing upon Metallurgy (now, of course, Materials Science & Metallurgy) within the Natural Sciences Tripos, and the ubiquitous nature of the subject. He realises that many, many aspects (such as undergraduate lessons on anodization) benefitted his later work.

[Also published in Material Eyes, Issue 40]