The Man Behind the Microchip

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The Man Behind the Microchip

by Leslie Berlin

Oxford University Press © 2005, 402 pages, $30.00 (ISBN 0-19-516343-5).

Robert Noyce and the Invention of SiliconValley

The integrated circuit cannot be underestimated: It is the electronic heart of every modern computer, automobile, cellular telephone, advanced weapon and video game. In The Man Behind the Microchip, technology scholar Leslie Berlin tells the story of the life of Robert Noyce, the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel who co-invented the integrated circuit. In a vivid narrative of his life, Berlin describes a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur who was also an ambitious and intensely competitive multimillionaire whose idea of taking risks included piloting his own jets and skiing down mountains accessible only by helicopter.

After interviewing more than 100 people associated with Noyce, including Andy Grove, Gordon Moore, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and many friends and family members, as well as gathering material from basements and archives around the world, Berlin was able to piece together a detailed recollection of Noyce’s life and accomplishments.

Eight Young Men

Before his death on June 30, 1990, at the age of 62, Robert Noyce had changed the world. His massive effect on the modern age began in 1957 when he was part of a group of eight young men — “six of them with Ph.D.s, none of them over 32 — who disliked their boss and decided to start their own transistor company.” Leading this group was Noyce, an Iowa-born minister’s son who was also a physicist and former champion diver with a doctorate from MIT. For the next 10 years, he managed the company, Fairchild Semiconductor, while teaching himself how to run a business along the way.

In 1959, Noyce invented the first practical integrated circuit. It was one of 17 patents he would be awarded over his lifetime. Ten years after he and the others began their venture, the company they created had 11,000 employees and $12 million in profits.

Intel Is Born

In 1968, Noyce and fellow Fairchild co-founder Gordon Moore started their own new venture, a tiny memory company they called Intel, which stands today as the world’s largest producer of semiconductor chips and is roughly twice as profitable as its competitors.

Berlin describes Noyce as a man who embodied many contradictions yet excelled at just about whatever he tried. She explains that he “was a preacher’s son who rejected organized religion, an outstanding athlete who chain-smoked, and an intensely competitive man who was greatly concerned that people liked him.” She also writes that he was worth tens of millions of dollars and owned several planes and houses, but also maintained a folksy sort of charm.

Warren Buffett, who served on a college board with Noyce for several years, recalls, “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.”

Noyce’s accolades from the media and U.S. presidents were many: The San Jose Mercury News once 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. CBS anchor Charles Osgood called Noyce “the man who changed the world.”

In the last interview he gave, Noyce was asked what he would do if he were “emperor” of the United States. Among other things, he said he would “make sure we are preparing our next generation to flourish in a high-tech age. And that means education of the lowest and the poorest, as well as the graduate school level.” After his death, in keeping with these beliefs, most of his estate went to provide grants to support “initiatives designed to produce significant improvement in the academic achievement of public school students in math, science and early literacy in grades K-12.” So far, Noyce Foundation grants have totaled more than $65 million.

In the conclusion of The Man Behind the Microchip, Berlin writes that Noyce’s influence endures in a set of ideals that have become part of high-tech culture: “[K]nowledge trumps hierarchy, every idea can be taken farther, new and interesting is better than established and safe, go for broke or don’t go at all.” She also explains that Noyce’s “vision is embedded deep in the eye of the swirling energy that is Silicon Valley, his spirit quietly urging anyone who might listen to ‘go off and do something wonderful.’” ~

Why We Like ThIs Book

The Man Behind the Microchip offers readers both a historical perspective of a man who will influence generations to come as well as an industry that affects all of us on a daily basis. Berlin’s research contains the personal stories and pivotal events that bring our high-tech world to life while demonstrating the effects that one person can have on the world. ~

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