Book Excerpt: The Man Behind the Microchip

Hailed as the Thomas Edison and Henry Ford of Silicon Valley, Robert Noyce was a brilliant inventor, a leading entrepreneur, and a daring risk taker who piloted his own jets and skied mountains accessible only by helicopter. Read an excerpt from his biography, The Man Behind the Microchip,

The following is an excerpt from the book
The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley
by Leslie Berlin
Published by Oxford
June 2005
Copyright © 2005 Leslie Berlin
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Bob Noyce took me under his wing,” Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs explains. “I was young, in my twenties. He was in his early fifties. He tried to give me the lay of the land, give me a perspective that I could only partially understand.” Jobs continues, “You can’t really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before.”

Before Intel and Google, before Microsoft and dot-coms and Apple and Cisco and Sun and Pixar and stock-option millionaires and startup widows and billionaire venture capitalists, there was a group of eight young men — six of them with PhDs, none of them over 32 — who disliked their boss and decided to start their own transistor company. It was 1957. Leading the group of eight was an Iowa-born physicist named Robert Noyce, a minister’s son and former champion diver, with a doctorate from MIT and a mind so quick (and a way with the ladies so effortless) that his graduate-school friends called him “Rapid Robert.” Over the next decade, Noyce managed the company, called Fairchild Semiconductor, by teaching himself business skills as he went along. By 1967, Fairchild had 11,000 employees and $12 million in profits.

Before the Internet and the World Wide Web and cell phones and personal digital assistants and laptop computers and desktop computers and pocket calculators and digital watches and pacemakers and ATMs and cruise control and digital cameras and motion detectors and video games — before all these, and the electronic heart of all these, is a tiny device called an integrated circuit. The inventor of the first practical integrated circuit, in 1959, was Robert Noyce. It was one of 17 patents awarded to him.

In 1968, Noyce and his Fairchild co-founder Gordon Moore launched their own new venture, a tiny memory company they called Intel. Noyce’s leadership of Intel — six years as president, five as board chair, and nine as a director — helped create a company that was roughly twice as profitable as its competitors and that today stands as the largest producer of semiconductor chips in the world.

But Noyce believed “big is bad” — or if not downright bad, at least not as much fun as small companies in which “everyone works much harder and cooperates more.” When he left daily management at Intel in 1975, he turned his attention to the next generation of high-tech entrepreneurs. This is how he met Jobs. This is how he came to serve on the boards of a half dozen startup companies and informally provide seed money to many more. He did not think that all these companies would succeed — he filed his paperwork for several of them in shoe boxes that he kept in his closet — but he strongly believed that by investing, he was doing his part, as he put it, to “restock the stream I’ve fished from.”

Noyce was constitutionally unable to sit on the sidelines of any operation with which he was involved. He once called his invention of the integrated circuit “a challenge to the future,” and turning away from the television interviewer, he stared straight into the camera to speak directly to the viewers: “Now let’s see if you can top that one,” he said, flashing a smile. At a father-son baseball game, which the dads traditionally allowed the boys to win, Noyce hit the very first pitch out of the park. “My poor father couldn’t help himself,” recalls his daughter Penny, who was in the stands that day. “He always threw himself entirely into the activity at hand — in whatever he did, he tried to excel.”

Robert Noyce’s favorite ski jacket featured a patch that declared “no guts, no glory.” It was a fitting motto for a man who flew his own planes, chartered a helicopter to drop him on mountaintops so he could ski down through the trees, rode a motorcycle through the streets of Bali in the middle of a thunderstorm, and once leapt with his skis off a 25-foot ledge into deep powder, exultant because he “had never jumped off a cliff into that much snow.” His powers of persuasion were legendary. In 1963, he convinced the notoriously conservative board of one of his companies to start the semiconductor industry’s first offshore manufacturing facility — at a site that was then completely under water, soon to be reclaimed from the bay by the government of Hong Kong. He talked a carload of traveling companions into joining him for a dip in a brackish Tibetan river, murky and, just a bit upstream, filled with crocodiles. He inspired in nearly everyone whom he encountered a sense that the future had no limits, and that together they could, as he liked to say, “Go off and do something wonderful.” Recalls Intel’s former chief counsel, “He was like the pied piper. If Bob wanted you to do something, you did it.”

Like so many others who spend their lives in the limelight, Noyce was an intensely private man. “He was the only person I can think of who was both aloof and charming,” says Intel chairman Andy Grove. “I don’t know how Bob kept you away, but you just didn’t know anything about him. And this is the guy who would go down on one knee to adjust my skis, put my chains on, when I was a nobody.”

To be sure, Noyce’s was not a simple personality. A small-town boy suspicious of large bureaucracies, he built two companies that between them employed tens of thousands of people, and he spent many years working through the maze of federal politics after he helped launch the Semiconductor Industry Association, today one of the nation’s most effective lobbying organizations. He was a preacher’s son who rejected organized religion, an outstanding athlete who chainsmoked, and an intensely competitive man who was greatly concerned that people like him. He was worth tens of millions and owned several planes and houses but nonetheless somehow maintained a “just folks” sort of charm: you half expected him to kick the ground and mutter “aw shucks, you guys,” when his hometown declared “Bob Noyce Day” or an elite engineering group named him the first recipient of an award many called the Nobel Prize for Engineering. Recalls Warren Buffett, who served on a college board with Noyce for several years, “Everybody liked Bob. He was an extraordinarily smart guy who didn’t need to let you know he was that smart. He could be your neighbor, but with lots of machinery in his head.”

It is easy to imagine Noyce, tuxedoed, smiling shyly, and desperately wanting a cigarette, in October 2000, when, had he lived, he undoubtedly would have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to his integrated circuit co-inventor, Jack Kilby. Amazingly, this is the second Nobel Prize that Noyce might rightfully have won. The first was in 1973, when a Japanese physicist named Leo Esaki was one of three recipients of the physics prize. Esaki was cited for his pathbreaking work on the tunnel diode, a device that provided the first physical evidence that tunneling, a foundational postulate of quantum mechanics, was more than an intriguing theoretical concept. Noyce had written a complete description of the tunnel diode nearly a year and a half before Esaki published his work in 1958. The two men’s research was thus happening almost simultaneously on opposite sides of the Pacific. Noyce had not published his ideas, however, because his boss, the Nobel laureate William Shockley, discouraged him from pursuing them.

Beginnings fascinated Noyce. He could imagine things few others could see. In 1965, when push-button telephones were brand new and state-of-the-art computers still filled entire rooms, Noyce predicted that the integrated circuit would lead to “portable telephones, personal paging systems, and palm-sized TVs.” His sense of near-limitless possibility led Noyce to pursue technical hunches that his colleagues believed were dead ends. (Often his peers were right, but occasionally, spectacularly, they were wrong.) Ideas fell from Noyce like leaves from a tree. For his work to be successful, he had to be surrounded by people who could follow up on his thoughts, filter them, and attend to the detail-work of running a company, because almost as soon as Noyce mentioned an idea, he had left it behind in order to explore another one. Noyce’s peripatetic mental style could be maddening at times. Andy Grove likens it to “a butterfly hopping from thought to thought. Unfinished sentences, unfinished thoughts: you really had to be on your toes to follow him.”

Noyce was forever pushing people to take their own ideas beyond where they believed they could go. “That’s all you’ve got?” he’d ask. “Have you thought about . . . ” An exchange of this sort left Noyce’s colleagues and employees feeling as though his blue eyes had bored right through their skulls to discover some potential buried inside themselves or their ideas that they had not known existed. It was exhilarating and a bit frightening. “If you weren’t intimidated by Bob Noyce, you’d never be intimidated by anybody,” recalls Jim Lafferty, Noyce’s friend and fellow pilot. “Here is this guy who is so capable in everything he does, and here you are trying to stumble through life and make it look respectable, and now you’re trying to keep up with him. And nobody can keep up with him.”

Indeed, Noyce can sound too good to be true. He was a brilliant, wealthy, generous, greatly beloved man gifted with enormous vision. But to leave a description of Noyce here would be to sell him short. He was not a superhero. He could be indecisive and would do almost anything to avoid confrontation, a trait that kept him from making difficult decisions and taking tough actions. His resolute focus on the future, his persistent gaze beyond the horizon, left him blind to many details and uninterested in the mundane minutiae of corporate management. This lack of attention had real consequences. He recoiled from strong emotions and would rather pretend a problem did not exist than address it head on. For many years, his personal life was difficult, and he was not entirely without fault in this area.

But these elements of Noyce’s character make him more of a man, not less. And to watch him come to recognize — and then devise means of working around — his own shortcomings, particularly as a manager, is to observe an exceptionally creative mind in action.

Noyce’s inner circle included the best-known players in Silicon Valley — Andy Grove and Gordon Moore of Intel, Arthur Rock and Eugene Kleiner of venture capital fame, Steve Jobs of Apple, William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor — as well as the inventors of the planar process (which made it possible to mass produce complex microelectronic devices) and the microprocessor. Some of the lesser-known Silicon Valley pioneers who worked with Noyce hold their own interest: among them are a monomaniacal genius, a Swiss with two doctorates, an aristocratic refugee from Nazi terror, and the son of a New York cabbie who really wanted to run a bed-and-breakfast. Most of the people who worked with Noyce admired him — some loved him — but a few resented his notoriety, which they felt obscured their own contributions. “Credit floats up” was the only comment one would offer about his former boss.

Together these men built a network of specialized equipment providers, high-caliber technical trade schools and engineering programs, and tech-savvy financial, public relations, and legal support services that helped to transform the once rural Santa Clara Valley into a high-tech business machine called Silicon Valley. When Noyce arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in April 1956, electronics was the fastest growing industry in the region, with government defense contracts and sales to the military accounting for well over half the business. But the plum, cherry, and apricot trees that had once anchored the valley’s economy still dotted the landscape. Twenty years later, the orchards were gone, government purchases accounted for less than a quarter of integrated circuit sales, and the electronics industry that had been suckled on government work was now sustained by a complex private network founded on a culture of high-stakes risk. Noyce’s career offers an ideal window into how this happened.

That Noyce and his contemporaries changed their world is only half the story. Their lives bear the marks of the monumental social, political, technical, and economic shifts that reshaped America in the second half of the twentieth century. When Noyce went west, he joined the massive post-war migration to California. His industry, launched in the torrent of defense spending and creative panic triggered by a tiny beeping satellite that the Soviets had lofted into orbit in 1957, placed itself at the center of the debate over industrial policy in the 1980s. Semiconductors also catalyzed the high-tech bubble in the 1990s.

Little more than a dozen years ago, the San Jose Mercury News declared Noyce the Thomas Edison and the Henry Ford of Silicon Valley. He received the National Medal of Science from President Carter and the National Medal of Technology from President Reagan. Noyce was featured in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. Peter Jennings profiled him as “the person of the week” on ABC. CBS anchor Charles Osgood called Noyce “the man who changed the world.” Tom Wolfe, who knew a hero when he saw one, wrote about Noyce in a 1983 Esquire article that ran next to pieces on other “American Originals,” including Jackie Robinson, John F. Kennedy, Betty Friedan, Walt Disney, and Elvis Presley. Futurist George Gilder called Robert Noyce “undoubtedly the most important American of the postwar era,” while Isaac Asimov went even further by hailing the invention of the integrated circuit as “the most important moment since man emerged as a life form.”

Copyright © 2005 Leslie Berlin

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Leslie Berlin is Visiting Scholar in the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at Stanford University. She lives in Palo Alto.

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