The story of the team behind the chip that launched a revolution
Sydney Anne Holt Layout Designer
Sydney Ann Holt worked as a layout designer of the 6502 microprocessor. The following Q & A recounts her time and efforts at MOS Technology working on the 6502. Sydney was the only woman who worked in a design capacity on the 6502, and, in fact, was often the only woman doing so at subsequent companies throughout the 1980s as well. The following Q and A recounts her experiences working on the 6502 at MOS Technology and elsewhere.
Q & A with Syndey
When and how did you become a layout designer at MOS Technology? I was working as a Layout Designer for a small IC house, named Inselek, in Princeton, New Jersey. They were in trouble of closing so Personnel looked to see if they could find job possibilities for the people. It happened that MOS Technology had need of a layout designer. The distance was a little much for me but I wanted to stay in the same field. MOS was starting work on the 6502 so I worked with the layout team.
I was a bit of an outsider as the rest of the team came from Motorola but we worked well together. I guess the people at MOS were a little offended by these cocky cowboys coming from Motorola to “take over their company." I was really hired as a go between “The Motorola Eight," as they were called, and the MOS people.
What was your role in the creation of the 6502? In other words, what does a layout designer do? My job was the same as Harry Bawcom and Mike Janes. We were given the logic drawings from Bill Mensch and Ray Hirt and etc, and turned them into the drawing you see in the picture from the Electrical Engineering Times article from 1975.
To do this, we drew them in pieces on big sheets of mylar that fit together like a puzzle. In order to do a careful logic to layout check we taped all the pieces together on the floor and crawled around on it to trace out the lines. The drawings were then digitized into layers so masks could be made from them.
I remember that once, one of the guys took off his shoes and was on the mylar checking when it was discovered his socks were damp and his toes were erasing the drawing as he moved along. Fortunately, it was caught very soon so the rework was minimal. We had a good laugh over it.
I was not an engineer but I had a lot of college courses and electronics and layout just came easy to me. I actually tried to enroll in Engineering in a college in New Jersey and was not allowed to because I was a woman. They were saving all the spots for men. After all the men had to support families. God let me fall into a job where I could use the talent he gave me. I never knew what a transistor looked and within 3 months I had my first chip done.
The work was fun and never boring. About the time you were getting bored the chip would finish and the technology would change. You had to run like heck just to stay even.
What did you do after you left MOS Technology? I left MOS Technology to go to RCA where I worked on the 1802 and 1804. On to Motorola where I worked on Star Wars (NOT the movie). In between my stints at Motorola I worked at Semiconductor Generale Society for five years as Cad Manager. Back to Motorola and I retired from there after a lot of years.
How was it being a woman working in a field dominated by men in the 1970s and later, when you moved onto other companies? It was an interesting time. I knew there were very few women in that field. At RCA, there were 19 men and me. I didn’t have any trouble with the men at MOS Technology but I did at RCA.
It took RCA 3 months to finally hire me just because I was a woman. They couldn’t find anyone to work on the new chip they were going to make. It was to be in NMOS and they couldn’t find anyone else who knew that technology. I also had to work with an engineer from Sarnoff Labs and had a terrible time with him. He had never worked on NMOS and I just came off the 6502 so I had lots of experience. He kept telling me what to do and I knew he was wrong. He couldn’t handle a woman telling him his job. He finally insisted on being taken off the job and went back to Princeton to the labs. It was OK to be a woman and it was OK to call myself a layout designer, but for God’s sake, just don’t be competent.
Sometimes there would be a question in the fab as to whether something was OK to pass or not and the engineer sent me down to look at it. He said “You drew it, you know what it should look like, go see if it is OK.” The women in the fab didn’t want to deal with me, they wanted the engineer and called him up. He said, “It’s her chip, do whatever she says” and hung up. They were not happy (the engineer was young and cute) but that was the end of the trouble there.
When I worked on Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars while at Motorola it was a government thing and there were teams of three or four companies working together. Four of us on the project went to Burroughs in California. When we walked into the room everyone in the room stood up and clapped. I didn’t know what was going on. Then I realized the clapping was coming from the secretary’s bull pen and they were clapping for me. I was the only woman on the four company team.
Do you have any historical artifacts or documents from MOS? I have no artifacts from my time at MOS Technology other than the article from the Electrical Engineering Times announcing its introduction in 1975. It is framed and on my office wall. In the photo, I think I may be holding a packaged chip of the 6502.
We’ve come a long way in the past 40 some years but the 6502 is still in use today. Who knew this chip would change the world and start the budding computer industry. Did we know how big this was going to be? NO way. We were just doing our jobs.