The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of
Silicon Valley. Leslie Berlin. xiv + 402 pp. Oxford
University Press, 2005. $30.
The 1957 picture at right shows eight young men, the cofounders of
Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, gathered around a table
outdoors in northern California. At front and center is Robert
Noyce: handsome, charismatic, yet easygoing, the epitome of the
entrepreneurial spirit that would help shape postwar, high-tech America.
Noyce, the son of a minister, attended Grinnell College and then got
a doctorate in physics from MIT. Two years later, in 1955, he moved
to California to join a company in Palo Alto that had just been
started by William Shockley, one of the coinventors of the
transistor. Shockley's remarkable eye for talent was exceeded only
by his gift for mismanagement. Less than two years later, the men in
the photograph, who had all worked for Shockley—the
"Traitorous Eight," he named them—were dissatisfied
enough to strike off and found their own company: Fairchild
Semiconductor. There Noyce invented the integrated circuit (at about
the same time that Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby also
produced one). And he quickly rose to the rank of general manager. A
decade later, Noyce and Gordon Moore left Fairchild to start a
second company, Intel, which became a leader in the semiconductor
industry in the 1970s and 1980s.
The outlines of Noyce's life and work are fairly well known. Still,
Leslie Berlin's excellent new study, The Man Behind the
Microchip, is a welcome addition to the body of historical
literature dealing with recent computer technology. The book is one
of only a handful of scholarly biographies of members of the
generation of inventors and entrepreneurs who were attracted to
California in the 1950s and 1960s, built the semiconductor industry
and helped create the economic and cultural phenomenon now known as
Berlin describes Noyce's technical accomplishments accurately and
with appropriate detail, but she also makes clear that he was as
much a social and economic innovator as a technical one. For
example, the strategy he developed at Fairchild of regularly cutting
the price of company products was seen as crazy at the time but has
since been widely adopted in the high-tech industry. Also, Noyce
insisted on extending stock options to nearly everyone in his
companies. The fact that Sherman Fairchild's criticism of the move
as "socialism" sounds so strange today shows how much
Noyce's innovation changed business.
Berlin's portrayal of Noyce might be characterized as ironic
hagiography. She celebrates his achievements as coinventor of the
integrated circuit and as a serial entrepreneur, but she also makes
it clear that those accomplishments came at a substantial human
cost. Noyce's first wife filed for divorce after their
children—several of whom struggled with problems as
adults—caught him in flagrante delicto with a
coworker. He was not the most effective executive, but the long-term
consequences of his missteps were more good than bad. His decision
to leave Shockley Semiconductor to set up a competing company was
considered ungentlemanly at the time, but it helped establish what
is now a familiar pattern in Silicon Valley and turned job mobility
into a virtue. (AnnaLee Saxenian argues in her now-classic work
Regional Advantage that this pattern helped vault
Silicon Valley ahead of Boston's Route 128, where more emphasis was
placed on company loyalty.)
Under Noyce's leadership, Fairchild's fortunes were uneven, and at
times the company hemorrhaged talent. These losses seemed a bad
thing at the time, but as a result Fairchild alumni were founders of
or senior employees in every semiconductor company in Silicon Valley
in the 1960s (the spinouts were known as the Fairchildren). Thus the
industry developed a collective identity that transcended daily competition.
Berlin also notes that at several critical points in his career
Noyce received sole credit for what were in fact ensemble
achievements. He became more famous than Fairchild colleagues who
contributed much to the success of the integrated
circuit—although this inappropriate allotment of credit
happened not through his own self-promotion but because the company
needed to put a public face on its legal claims to the patent on the
Fifteen years later, Intel built its reputation by capitalizing on
Noyce's telegenic personality, at the expense both of Noyce's friend
Gordon Moore and of the company's head of research and development,
Andy Grove. Noyce loved the spotlight, but the spotlight loved him
more. Noyce's modest, "aw-shucks" manner made him a more
approachable leader and gave his companies a friendly, human face.
Indeed, Berlin's biography shows that marketing, although we tend to
think of it as less important than engineering and management,
deserves more attention in histories of Silicon Valley. It is no
coincidence that Regis McKenna, the man most responsible for shaping
the region's approach to high-tech marketing, started his career at Intel.
Ironically, Noyce is now less well known in some circles than the
colleagues he once eclipsed. Eugene Kleiner, another of the
Traitorous Eight, founded one of the world's leading venture capital
firms. The immortality of Gordon Moore (another of the eight) is
guaranteed by Moore's Law, which predicts that both the size and
cost of transistors will shrink steadily and rapidly. Andy Grove led
Intel through its explosive growth and the "Intel Inside"
campaign that made the company a household name. Noyce himself died
in 1990, ten years before the Nobel Prize committee got around to
recognizing the invention of the integrated circuit by awarding the
2000 Prize in Physics to Jack Kilby. Noyce would probably have
shared in it if he had still been alive, but the Nobel is not
awarded posthumously. Integrated circuits are themselves so
ubiquitous it's hard to imagine them having had an inventor. It's
like someone claiming to have invented bricks or woven cloth. So
Berlin's biography will help preserve Noyce's reputation and will
serve as an important resource for future studies of Silicon Valley.
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