Bob Noyce — An Immortal Microelectronics Inspiration

Bob Noyce

Bob Noyce’s nickname was the “Mayor of Silicon Valley.”   He was one of the very first scientists to work in the area — long before the stretch of California had earned the Silicon name — and he ran two of the companies that had the greatest impact on the silicon industry: Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel.  He also invented the integrated chip, one of the stepping stones along the way to the microprocessors in today’s computers.

Noyce, the son of a preacher, grew up in Grinnell, Iowa. He was a physics major at Grinnell College, and exhibited while there an almost baffling amount of confidence.  He was always the leader of the crowd.  This could turn against him occasionally — the local farmers didn’t approve of him and weren’t likely to forgive quickly when he did something like steal a pig for a college luau.  The prank nearly got Noyce expelled, even though the only reason the farmer knew about it was because Noyce had confessed and offered to pay for it.

While in college, Noyce’s physics professor Grant Gale got hold of two of the very first transistors ever to come out of Bell Labs.  Gale showed them off to his class and Noyce was hooked.  The field was young, though, so when Noyce went to MIT in 1948 for his Ph.D., he found he knew more about transistors than many of his professors.

After a brief stint making transistors for the electronics firm Philco, Noyce decided he wanted to work at Shockley Semiconductor.  In a single day, he flew with his wife and two kids to California, bought a house, and went to visit Shockley to ask for a job — in that order.

As it was, Shockley and Noyce’s scientific vision — and egos — clashed.  When seven of the young researchers at Shockley semiconductor got together to consider leaving the company, they realized they needed a leader.  All seven thought Noyce, aged 29 but full of confidence, was the natural choice.  So Noyce became the eighth in the group that left Shockley in 1957 and founded Fairchild Semiconductor.

Noyce was the general manager of the company and while there invented the integrated chip — a chip of silicon with many transistors all etched into it at once. That was the first time he revolutionized the semiconductor industry.  He stayed with Fairchild until 1968, when he left with Gordon Moore to found Intel.  At Intel he oversaw Ted Hoff’s invention of the microprocessor — that was his second revolution.

At both companies, Noyce introduced a very casual working atmosphere, the kind of atmosphere that has become a cultural stereotype of how California companies work.  But along with that open atmosphere came responsibility.  Noyce learned from Shockley’s mistakes and he gave his young, bright employees phenomenal room to accomplish what they wished, in many ways defining the Silicon Valley working style was his third revolution.

Active all his life, Noyce enjoyed reading Hemingway, flying his own airplane, hang gliding, and scuba diving. Noyce believed that microelectronics would continue to advance in complexity and sophistication well beyond its current state, leading to the question of what use society would make of the technology. In his last interview, Noyce was asked what he would do if he were “emperor” of the United States. He said that he would, among other things, “…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 at the graduate school level.

Noyce was also a father figure, a mentor to many key Silicon Valley startups – including Apple computer co-founder Steve Jobs.

“Bob Noyce took me under his wing,” 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.”

“My observation is that the doers are the major thinkers. The people that really create the things that change this industry are both the thinker and doer in one person. And if we really go back and we examine, you know did Leonardo have a guy off to the side that was thinking five years out in the future what he would paint or the technology he would use to paint it, of course not. Leonardo was the artist but he also mixed all his own paints. He also was a fairly good chemist. He knew about pigments. [And] knew about human anatomy. And [combining] all of those skills together, the art and the science, the thinking and the doing, was what resulted in the exceptional result.”

Steve Jobs and Bob NoyceNoyce and Jobs also shared some management similarities. Noyce, for example, is described by Leslie Berlin (author of The Man Behind the Microchip) this way:

“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.”

Similarly, Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Jobs, makes much of Jobs’ “reality distortion” management style. Jobs would regularly and, often disparagingly, challenge Apple employees and push them beyond what they thought was possible.


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