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The Man Behind the Microchip

 
8/29/2005

Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel and inventor of the first practical integrated circuit, was in many ways the prototypical Silicon Valley icon—keen mind, less-than-great husband, powerful motivator but less-than-powerful businessman, with a passion for flying and skiing. By force of will and intellect, he helped usher in the digital age.

Author Leslie Berlin was granted access to Noyce family members and business partners, as well as to Noyce's own papers, to produce what seems a fair-minded appreciation of his role in the emergence of Silicon Valley and particularly the semiconductor industry.

As one of the first substantial biographies on Noyce, the book starts at the beginning with his upbringing in Grinnell, Iowa, and continues through the brilliant school years (Phi Beta Kappa) and his march through the chip world starting with Shockley Semiconductor, Fairchild, and Intel. When he died of a heart attack at age sixty-two, Noyce had helped form and was running the SEMATECH chip consortium, one of the most powerful trade associations in the electronics industry.

Berlin paints a portrait of a great thinker and adventurer who nonetheless had a troubled life at home. She offers up a quote from one of Noyce's daughters: “My father was good at everything except, maybe, human interaction.”

We especially liked the look into the early days of Intel and how co-founders Noyce, Andy Grove, and Gordon Moore each leveraged the strengths of the others to build a strong company. Noyce, for example, was not the great technical innovator he had been earlier in his career, but shone as a spokesman and motivator. “To be 'pushed' by Noyce . . . was not an altogether pleasant experience,” recounts Berlin. “It was a bit like being peeled, coolly and efficiently stripped down, layer by layer, until Noyce reached what he considered the heart of the matter. The person Noyce 'pushed' would leave the conversation strangely invigorated by a sense that he had sloughed off all superfluous accretions of conservative thinking and conventional wisdom—and that he could now do what Noyce had somehow convinced him it was possible to do.”

The people Noyce convinced to do better included Steve Jobs and a whole parade of people who helped build Silicon Valley. That makes The Man Behind the Microchip not only an excellent biography, but also an intriguing history of the development of the digital age.

Berlin is a visiting scholar in the history and philosophy of science and technology at Stanford University.

- Sean Silverthorne