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The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley
By Leslie Berlin
Oxford University Press $30

Robert Noyce, regarded by many as the “father of Silicon Valley”, died in 1990 from a massive heart attack – the victim, perhaps, of the cigarettes he chain-smoked and could never quite be persuaded to give up. He was 62.

The news caused sent waves of dismay throughout the US semiconductor industry. For nearly 20 years he had relished his role as its most outspoken advocate and entrepreneur, the legendary co-founder of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, two of the world’s most significant microchip companies, and a co-inventor of the integrated circuit, the single most important electronic device ever developed.

At the time of his death he was chief executive of Sematech, a pioneering co-operative venture through which a number of US chip companies, more used to competing than collaborating, hoped to face down the Japanese competition. challenge that had already seen most North American memory chip makers forced out of the business.

Robert Noyce was a gifted scientist. with a string of patents to his name. He could have shared in two Nobel Prizes, the first for the “negative resistance diode”, an idea he conceived at while working for Shockley Semiconductor. However, William Shockley, his boss and the most famous name in US solid state physics, showed no interest and Noyce abandoned the research. Leo Esaki, the Japanese scientist, was eventually awarded the Nobel for inventing the device.

A few years later, Noyce and Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments were jointly credited with inventing the integrated circuit, where all the elements of an electronic circuit are engraved and embedded on a single chip of semiconductor. Such circuits are remarkably reliable and can be made cheaply by the million. Today’s computer industry could not exist without the integrated circuits, which Such circuits are remarkably ­reliable and can be made cheaply by the million. Kilby’s Nobel was awarded in 2000, 10 years too late for Noyce to share the glory.

In his lifetime, however, Noyce was the recipient of many honours. In addition, He had an easy-going charisma which that made him a natural and popular leader, especially when leading heading a research team: “Go off and do something wonderful,” was his idea of mentoring. But he was an unwilling and often ineffective top executive. The same self indulgence which kept him smoking prevented him from facing unpleasant facts and situations and certainly compounded the problems of the companies he helped to start and run.

Leslie Berlin sums up his weaknesses: “He could be indecisive and would do almost anything to to avoid confrontation, a trait that kept him from making difficult decisions and taking tough actions”. Fortunately, at Intel at any rate, hard-nosed operators such as Gordon Moore and Andy Grove were there to ensured the company ran on sound business principles.

Leslie Berlin’s meticulously researched and annotated biography tells the story of a talented but flawed individual whose successes and failures could , and perhaps should, serve as the raw material for a dozen business school case studies. It also paints a revealing picture of US business culture in the mid-20th century.

After college, Noyce worked for the electronics company Philco in Philadelphia. It was a time when male dominance and sexist attitudes went more or less unquestioned. Wives were kept in the background while their husbands spent long hours at the factory or on the road. and female secretaries and production workers were paid low wages and regarded as fair game.

Noyce, the author Berlin notes, was part of “a testosterone-drenched worldin which all of his equals were men and every woman a subordinate”. His first marriage, to the sharp-tongued Betty Bottomley, seems quickly to have soured but he was not known as “Rapid Robert” for nothing. Several of the women working at Philco were, fortuitously for Noyce, also named Betty. “When I talked in my sleep [at home] it was fine,” he explained.

Noyce’s story informs and illuminates the recent history of Silicon Valley, that area of southern California between San Francisco and San Jose linked by Route 101 which is now home to some 4,000 information technology companies. Hewlett-Packard was, in 1939, the first electronics company to set up in the Valley. When Noyce, Mr Moore and six colleagues left Shockley to establish Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley in 1957, support services were still basic. The Fair­child team built their own equipment, establishing many of the practices that are still current today. And Noyce worked out how to make integrated circuits, using a technology developed by a co-founder, Jean Hoerni.

Fairchild’s company culture – laid-back and humane – owed much to Noyce and set the pattern for the ­Valley. But Fairchild began to fail, partly because of Noyce’s lack of concern for the mundane details of ­running a business. He and Mr Moore left and, in 1968, established the company that would become Intel, the developer of the world’s first microprocessor and now the largest semiconductor company in the world.

Noyce was a visionary who understood how microprocessors would change society. He was a risk taker who swam and skied, led a madrigal group, owned a fleet of boats and learned to fly both propeller driven and jet aircraft. His private life was often a mess, and his wife - they were divorced in 1975 and he remarried almost immediately - and children suffered from his frequent absences and affairs. but he was much loved and respected by colleagues and coworkers. The lesson fromMs Berlin’s evocative account of the birth of an industry and its midwives is that individuals with Noyce’s prodigious talents are best, in Churchill’s words, “on tap but not on top”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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