Book Review

The Man behind the Microchip.
Robert Noyce and
the Invention of Silicon Valley
by Leslie Berlin

Because the modern tech industry is still so young, people may have personal recollections about some of the events when reading histories of the times. As such, they may also have a personal bias.

This book about Robert Noyce will probably not be a favorite of fans of William Shockley or Jack Kilby with whom Noyce shared credit for innovations. Nor to fans of Gordon Moore and Andy Grove who maybe don't get the credit they deserve from this book.

But in general, it's a very interesting look into the birth of a technology, industry and ultimately Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley didn't begin with the birth of the PC and it was a bustling hub of entrepreneurial activity way before the dot com boom or even the Web.

In 1957, eight young (all under 32) men decide to start their own transistor company. By 1967, this company, Fairchild Semiconductor, had 11,000 employees. Robert Noyce and his partner Gordon Moore co-founded Fairchild and later Intel.

The book tells about the birth of the transistor - the replacement for vacuum tubes relying on the unusual properties of semiconductor elements. Decide for yourself on William Shockley and his team's contributions but it is apparent that Shockley was the one who chose silicon over germanium to build transistors and he used the new doping process called diffusion to build them. Shockley, along with Bell lab colleagues Walter Brattain and John Bardeen won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the transistor.

The book details how Noyce and Moore and others left Shockley Semiconductor and started Fairchild Semiconductor. In the first 18 months at Fairchild, one of Noyce's 7 patents was for a "monolithic integrated circuit." Basically an integrated circuit is an entire electrical circuit built onto a tiny chip of silicon. Bardeen called its invention "as important as the wheel." Noyce later shared the Nobel Prize for the invention of the IC with Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments.

We all know the tale of how, in 1965, Moore pointed out that every 18 months the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubled - Moore's Law.

It's fascinating to read how Noyce and Moore split off and formed Integrated Electronics or Intel (far from their first choice of names) and released their first product - a 64-bit random access memory - in May 1969. This soon grew into the "computer on a chip thing" or the microprocessor.

The name Silicon Valley first appeared in an Electronic News article in January 1971. The book details the creation and growth of the industry centered around that small plot of land. It also details how Noyce got into what we today call venture capital - though he just kept IOU slips in shoeboxes.

As the technology grew and the Altair and later the Apple II came around, the microprocessor went from primarily a control chip to a separate entity - the PC. Great stories keep springing up in the book - like how Mike Markkula who retired from Intel at age 34 decided to invest in this little startup called Apple.

In Noyce's last interview, he said that if he was "emperor" of the US he would "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 the graduate school level."

Reviewed by Dan Hanson

Rating - 3.5 pocket protectors 

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