Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This Day in Scientific History (Robert Noyce, Silicon Valley Titan, Born)

December 12, 1927—Robert Noyce, who co-invented the integrated chip, the tiny bit of silicon that furnished the foundation for millions of transistors, and who then re-invented American corporate practices as co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation and Intel, was born in Grinnell, Iowa.

Before Bill Gates, before Steve Jobs, there was Noyce, who, for all his fame within the world of high-tech, never enjoyed the wider public name recognition given the founders of Microsoft and Apple. But Noyce was nicknamed “the Mayor of Silicon Valley” for a reason. He received 16 patents on semiconductor methods, devices and structures—discoveries used later in robots and the Apollo manned flights to the moon, as well as for an American computer industry that has flourished while other parts of the manufacturing sector have died on the vine.

I first became aware of this high-tech pioneer when I read Tom Wolfe’s essay, “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley,” in the December 1983 issue of Esquire. That mammoth special issue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the legendary magazine, was called “The 50 Who Made The Difference,” containing profiles of key individuals in American life in the prior half-century, including Muhammad Ali, Betty Friedan, William S. Paley, Philip Johnson, Dr. John Rock, a developer of the birth-control pill, William Levitt, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Carl Bernstein and Ralph Nader. Noyce (who died in 1990) was not anywhere near as well-known as many, if not all, the others on the list, but his influence was arguably every bit as extensive.

The Noyce piece became, in effect, Wolfe’s goodbye to the New Journalism he had begun practicing 20 years before as a young reporter. The writer was about to take up the fiction that has largely consumed his time since then. But before he was done with nonfiction, he contributed what can, in certain ways, be read as a coda to The Right Stuff.

I have never read how Wolfe became interested in Noyce’s story, but given the details about the importance of the semiconductor to the space program, it’s very possible that the fascination grew out of his research for The Right Stuff. This time, though, Wolfe paid tribute not to the astronauts, nor even to those at NASA who guided them through space, but instead to the man ultimately responsible for a major component of Apollo 8, “a miniature computer two feet long, one foot wide, and six inches thick, exactly three thousand times smaller than the old ENIAC and far faster and more reliable”—a direct outgrowth of the integrated chip created by Noyce and Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby in 1959.

There is another link between the space program chronicled by Wolfe and the origins of Silicon Valley that the writer discussed. Recall how, in The Right Stuff, Wolfe had some fun with John Glenn when the astronaut chastised several of his Mercury colleagues for tomcatting around. “In his eyes burned four centuries of Dissenting Protestant fervor,” Wolfe notes.

Wolfe discovered a similar motif in the background of Noyce and other pioneers of Silicon Valley, who thought they had shed their old mores after World War II, only to find out differently. The founder of Noyce’s hometown, Josiah Grinnell, was a 19th-century Congregationalist minister who founded public schools in the Heartland, and was a benefactor of the college in Iowa that now bears his surname. Noyce and other key engineers in the rise of Silicon Valley didn’t have the cachet of graduates back East, but they brought a similar moral fervor to their endeavor of changing the world.

Noyce did so not just with the science itself, but with the way of business life he evangelized. His departure from the fold of his boss, transistor inventor William Shockley—and then, subsequently, the departure of those who worked for Noyce himself, at Fairchild and Intel—became a kind of career template for getting ahead in Silicon Valley.

Even more important was the corporate environment Noyce created. At Intel, Wolfe writes, Noyce not only insisted on “no executive suites, no pinstripe set, no reserved parking places, or other symbols of the hierarchy,” but he also created a common space for all employees—an end to “the eastern corporate protocol of small metal desks for underlings and large wooden desks for overlords.”

Making all of this possible was Noyce’s personal charisma—itself, Wolfe seems to waggishly suggest, in his choice of metaphor, a kind of secular outgrowth of the inventor’s religious background:

“With his strong face, his athlete's build, and the Gary Cooper manner, Bob Noyce projected what psychologists call the halo effect.  People with the halo effect seem to know exactly what they're doing and moreover make you want to admire them for it.  They make you see the halos over their heads."

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