Robert Noyce

The man that changed the world

Bob Noyce

Robert Noyce, also known as the father[1] and even the mayor of Silicon Valley[2], was a charismatic genius who became the most influential person in the computer industry during the 20th century, not for building or designing computers, but for providing ever-more-shrinking silicon hardware components, used for building computers.

With his invention of the planar Integrated Circuit, the stubborn pursuit of its development and his decision to sell ICs below cost to spur their demand, Bob Noyce single handedly defined the electronic technology of the 20th century.

As an entrepreneur he is the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor (the starting point of Silicon Valley) and he is also the co-founder of Intel Corporation, where the basic building blocks of a computer were developed in silicon and of course where the microprocessor was invented.

On various occasions Bob Noyce has been described as "the man that changed the world", "undoubtedly the most important American of the postwar era" and "the Thomas Edison and the Henry Ford of Silicon Valley."[3]

Noyce the inventor

Bob Noyce was first and foremost an engineer, with a doctorate in physics from MIT (1953), who received a total of 17 patents during his very prolific career.

Bob Noyce's most important invention was that of the planar integrated circuit (IC) which is used, barely modified, in all of our current electronic devices. His patent was challenged in court early on, but to no avail.

Isaac Asimov called his invention of the integrated circuit "the most important moment since man emerged as a life form."[4] It is the atom of our electronic world, its fundamental building block.

Invented sixty years ago, the IC has not yet been replaced and, as of 2018, the total semi-conductor industry generated $469 billions, with total units shipped topping 1 trillion for the first time in history.

In 1978, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), who later created (2000) the yearly Robert N. Noyce Medal award, gave Bob Noyce their Medal of Honor for his "contribution to the silicon integrated circuit, a cornerstone of modern electronics".

Before the ceremony, in late 1977, James M. Early a distinguished member of IEEE, wrote to Noyce about it:

It is rare that a truly revolutionary major invention, the direction of the development of the invention, and its successful exploitation in the marketplace are the work of a single individual. You deserve, far beyond most winners, this highest honor of the IEEE.
Letter quoted in: Leslie Berlin, The man behind the microchip - Robert Noyce and the invention of Silicon Valley, page 245 (2005)

Bob Noyce got the idea of the microchip after another one of Fairchild's eight co-founders, Jean Hoerni, invented a way to make a transistor on a flat piece of silicon where it is called a planar transistor. A planar transistor is made using a process called photolithography which allowed transistors to be mass produced, in a manner similar to developing a photo.

Noyce's patent for the integrated circuit described that many planar transistors, capacitors, diodes and resistors could be etched on the flat surface of one silicon crystal (hence the term planar) where they could be interconnected without wires, to provide a useful electronic function.

Noyce the entrepreneur

Bob Noyce was also an entrepreneur,[5] co-founder of two of the most important startups of Silicon Valley with Fairchild Semiconductor, the starting point of venture capital companies there, and Intel Corporation which is currently the world's largest semiconductor company. His laissez-faire attitude coupled with an incredible desire to win created these companies' fertile corporate cultures.

Noyce's idea of planning was to yell, let's take the hill! And then so inspire his troops with his own charisma and intelligence that they all began running behind him, no one exactly sure of his responsibilities, but everyone heading in the same general direction.
Leslie Berlin, The man behind the microchip - Robert Noyce and the invention of Silicon Valley, page 226 (2005)

Initially Bob Noyce's office at Intel's headquarters was not in the highest room of its tallest tower, but in a cubicle, itself in a large room of cubicles, where everybody could see him and talk to him at a moment's notice. Believing that financial gain is a major driving force of human's effort and ingenuity, he fought to reward his employees with profit sharing and stock option plans in both of his companies.

Noyce the manager

And finally, Bob Noyce was a visionary technical manager.

  • It is under his leadership at Fairchild Semiconductor, that the transistor became mass-producible when it was simplified from a very hard to manufacture, somewhat 3-dimensional device, to a flat planar transistor.
  • Again, under his leadership, but this time at Intel, the Personal Computer Industry was enabled: first and foremost with the invention of the microprocessor which commands and controls our 21st century digital world,
  • but also because Intel created most of the chips required to build a PC.

These chips were meant for professionals, but they could also be used by hackers with a limited budget. Ed Roberts from Albuquerque, New Mexico, became the first to do so in January of 1975 with his release of the Altair 8800. By the end of the year Ed Roberts had single handedly created all aspects of the personal computer industry.

The Altair 8800, built around Intel's 5th microprocessor, was cheap, open source and expandable. Four giants of the PC industry: Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs all got started because of it, and all within six months of its introduction.

[1]    Leslie Berlin, The man behind the microchip - Robert Noyce and the invention of Silicon Valley, page 246 (2005)
[2]    Robert Slater, Portraits in Silicon, page 153 (1987)
[3]    Leslie Berlin, The man behind the microchip - Robert Noyce and the invention of Silicon Valley, page 310 (2005) All quotes origins are listed on note 9 of the introduction
[4]    IEEE Milestone Honors Invention Of Planar Process, Integrated Circuit (2009)
[5]    C. Lécuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, (2007)

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Drawing of Bob Noyce by Jessica Falconieri © 2015