Berlin’s rigorously factual account portrays the scientific process in all its grittiness. Not only were the events that led to the Fairchild integrated circuit “murky” (Noyce was inspired by the work of one of his colleagues, Jean Hoerni), but after the fact, the engineers failed to realize what they had wrought. Some executives within Fairchild were opposed to investing in the commercial development of integrated circuits on the grounds that they were prohibitively expensive and threatened transistor sales.
But Fairchild didn’t quite give up. In 1961, it did launch a primitive integrated circuit dubbed the Micrologic, though the $100 price tag limited demand. Finally, in 1964, Noyce made a bold decision: to cut the price of the circuit below what it was costing Fairchild’s customers to buy and then solder the individual components themselves.
Once the chip became economical to purchase, sales took off. Fellow Fairchild founder Gordon Moore later said the decision to cut prices was as important as the invention itself. It established a pattern for Silicon Valley that still endures. As Moore put it, “Whenever there’s a problem, you lower the price.” By 1965, Noyce could see the future. He told a group of financial analysts to get ready for portable telephones, personal paging systems, and palm-sized televisions.
In 1968, Noyce and Moore bolted from Fairchild and founded Intel. There, Noyce rather sadly became a front man and eventually a figurehead. Berlin does not spare us the depiction of Noyce’s shortcomings, including the details of his troubled first marriage. After Intel, he became a lobbyist for the semiconductor industry – not the finale one envisions for a legend, but in keeping with Noyce’s modest self-appraisal.
He was often asked when he would win the Nobel Prize. “They don’t give Nobel Prizes for engineering,” he would say with a smile. Noyce died in 1990. Had he lived, he undoubtedly would have shared the stage with Kilby, who in 2000 did indeed win a Nobel in physics for ushering in the age of computers.
By Leslie Berlin
Oxford University Press 2005, $30.00