Thomas G. Digges, Jr.
Class of 1960, BS
As a young boy growing up in the late 1930s and 1940s, Tom Digges was the son of two highly educated parents for the times. His mother, Dorothy Hottel Digges, a biology graduate of George Washington University, was a bacteriologist for the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital in Washington, D.C. His father, Thomas Goodwin Digges who attended Virginia Tech, left in the middle of his college career to serve in World War I, where he attained the rank of captain, and returned to acquire a physics degree, also from George Washington.
The Digges never doubted that both Tom and his brother, Robert, would go to college. What his parents may not have realized was that Tom would end up with four degrees: bachelor degrees in French from the University of Virginia and in metallurgical engineering from Virginia Tech; a master’s in metallurgical engineering from the University of Tennessee, and a doctorate in metallurgy and materials science from Lehigh University.
Tom and his brother started out living in the northern Virginia community of McLean, Virginia, on an 18-acre farm that still remains in the family. He was one of about 20 students in his classes, which at that time were combined for the first and second grades, then third and fourth, and finally fifth and sixth — a striking contrast to today’s school population in Northern Virginia.
High school was a different story. He attended Western High School in Washington, D.C. Most of its graduates went to Ivy League colleges. Each morning, Tom’s father chauffeured him to school on his way to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Early on, Tom leaned towards a medical career, hence his first round choice of college at the University of Virginia where he enrolled in pre-med and French. He concentrated on science courses, subjects most pre-med students steered clear of, according to his recollection. But when he entered a bacteriology class, he found the material “really did not make sense” to him and he left U.Va. with only a French diploma.
His father intervened, contacting his friend Walter Newman, the president of Virginia Tech from 1947 until 1962. Newman recommended that the bi-linguist and Eagle Scout should pursue a second degree in engineering with his solid science background. Also, in high school Tom had exhibited some engineering skills, building a crystal radio set, and ironically crystals would eventually become his path to a lucrative career.
At 23, he started Virginia Tech as a junior. He suffered one more hiccup in his academic life, going on academic probation as he “fished around” for his true vocation. But the minor setback caused him to bounce back strongly. He graduated with an immediate job offer from Newport News Shipbuilding in 1960.
The feared father of the nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, was the man in charge at the time. Mr. Digges says, “I considered myself a flunkie at the shipyard, and I was in a dead-end job. Most of the work consisted of making professional drawings on welding procedures prepared by senior engineers for nuclear reactors.”
So, Mr. Digges applied to the University of Tennessee to pursue a master’s degree. His master’s thesis was on “abnormal steel,” a research path his accomplished father, named one of NIST’s Distinguished Scientists, had also pursued in research.
Upon his third graduation, he received several employment offers from aerospace companies in California as well as the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). He selected the latter even though the salary was only $6000 a year, only two thirds of what the private industry offers were. “It was a better job, with more research and development, and I would be growing my own crystals of refractory metals. I built a double crystal x-ray diffractometer to measure crystal perfection and grew niobium single crystals by two different methods,” he recalls.
The NRL position led Mr. Digges to pursue a doctorate, and he received a National Science Foundation Fellowship to attend Lehigh University. “In the 1960s, engineers were kings,” he says, and he worked with Richard Tauber, one of the best in the semiconductor industry at Lehigh, from 1966 thru 1968. Mr. Digges managed to author three unique publications from his thesis, even receiving desired critiques on the papers from his then retired father. “My parents were always with me on everything I did. Not everyone is blessed as I was,” he says.
Following his fourth and final graduation, he moved to the Lone Star State to work at Texas Instruments, a company that employed the famous Jack Kilby who led a team that invented the first handheld calculator showcasing the integrated circuit. As with Rickover, Dr. Digges found himself associated with people who worked with this icon in the field, and he was chief engineer among the researchers who were the first to use computers to control silicon crystal growth in 1969. In 1972, he developed the silicon vacuum float zone technology pilot line for producing high resistivity silicon to serve as sensor material. For the 1974 Skylab Crystal growth experiment, Dr. Digges personally prepared the germanium crystal and successfully instructed the astronaut how to make furnace temperature changes.
While at TI, he met his wife of more than four decades, Lana Ingram, an accomplished woman with a master’s degree in mathematics and who worked in design automation.
His experience at TI where he was making an annual salary of $16,000, yet the company was grossing $21,000 a month from work he led, triggered his thinking about entrepreneurship. He left TI in 1973, for a short stint with Spectrolab where he was in charge of silicon crystal growth. During the energy crisis in 1974 he was laid off. Mr. Digges and his wife thought about starting their own business, but there was inadequate preparation time. Within two months he received an offer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
By late 1977, the time was right for Tom and Lana to start their own semiconductor company. Robert wanted Tom to move to Virginia and promised to fund the company. For the actual manufacturing building plan, the Digges brothers worked with a Northern Virginia architect. Tom prepared by producing schematics of the electrical and lighting systems in conjunction with a JPL facility engineer. For the water system, he made schematics with a Wacker chemitronics engineer.
The Digges sold their house and headed for Virginia. Upon their arrival, they discovered Robert required a back operation, incapacitating him for six to nine months. Tom had to take on the role of supervisor of the manufacturing facility. With Lana by his side, Tom drew no salary in the beginning, and they constructed and assembled furnaces for the nine months prior to producing the first silicon crystal as well as finishing the building that housed the manufacturing facility.
Dr. Digges, the holder of 10 patents, four trade secrets disclosures, and greater than 30 refereed technical publications, says, “Technically, I knew we could do this. Making crystals is an art and a science. My problem was I am hardheaded, and did not appreciate good business practices,” he adds. But with his sibling’s business prowess, they made their first crystal, and started selling to companies like TI and Western Electric.
Over time, Tom increased his business skills. One of Tom’s attributes is his ability to network with his peers in the technology world. He has received technical help on crystallography, resistivity measurements, silicon etching and fracture, surface morphology, clean room technology, rf heating, and micro fabrication. This enabled Virginia Semiconductor Inc., to produce state-of- the-art crystals with a low overhead.
From 1986 to 1996, the company’s averaged growth rate increased at more than 20 percent per year. In 1991, Virginia Semiconductor won the “Photonic Spectra Circle of Excellence” award for the introduction of the two to four micron thick wafer, judged as one of the year’s 25 most significant technical developments in the photonics field. The company also won the prestigious Blue Chip Award given by U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Connecticut Mutual, judged as the best small business in the state of Virginia in overcoming adversity.
Tom and Lana attended many trade missions as Virginia delegates led by the various governors to Europe, Asia, Israel, and South America. In 1994, the company received the Virginia District Export Council Merit Award for increasing its export business from 20 percent of sales in 1986 to 40 percent of sales in 1993.
Their son, Thomas G. Digges III, is president of the company today while his father remains the chief executive officer. “He is doing a good job. We started making two-inch wafers, and we are now custom-making six-inch wafers. We became the first company to offer on-line purchase of wafers off the web, now representing some 10 percent of our business due to the ideas and leadership of my son,” Dr. Digges says.
With less daily pressure, the Digges purchased a 37-acre farm on the Potomac River in Westmoreland County. He spends time now planting an assortment of trees and fencing out deer so he can grow a garden that features eggplants to watermelons.
He also finds time now to perform some philanthropic work, traveling to Mississippi four times in four years after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. He assisted in relief efforts, chain sawing trees, hanging drywall, and installing doors.
He was appointed by the Governor to serve on the Virginia College Building Authority from 1997 to 2002. The Digges are members of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society and the Committee of 100, and he is a former member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board from 2007 until 2011.
Class of: 1960
Year Inducted into Academy: 2012