Imagine being in the room to witness the genesis of an invention that would profoundly change human civilization. Gordon E. Moore was there; he supervised the project 25 years ago that put the first "computer on a chip."
As the co-founder of a Silicon Valley startup known as Intel Corp. Moore has seen feat after feat of technical prowess sustain a geometric growth in computer power so regular you can practically set your watch by it. The growth is so predictable and important, it has been canonized as a law-- "Moore's Law." It was Moore who noticed as early as 1965 that microchips were doubling in circuit density (and thus in their potential computational power) every year or so.
Moore retired as chairman of Intel in 1989. In 1990, he received the National Medal of Technology from then-President George Bush. Now 70, he still works several days a week in his old cubicle at Intel. In September 1997, Moore took some time to speak with Scientific American's west coast editor, W. Wayt Gibbs. Their wide ranging discussion is presented in four parts.
In part one, Moore describes how he narrowly missed studying nuclear bombs instead of microchips, how he helped found a multibillion-dollar company, and how he snookered Japanese investors out of rights to microprocessors. Part two recounts the discovery of Moore's Law and his take on the formidable technical obstacles it is beginning to face.
In Part three Moore describes the technological tricks that Intel engineers are developing to keep the computer revolution humming. In the final section, Moore reveals his predictions for the next 10 years of computing.
PART 1: THE BIRTH OF THE MICROPROCESSOR
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: When you were younger were you more interested in science than in engineering?
GORDON MOORE: Yes, from the time I was in junior high school I decided I wanted to be a chemist. I didn't quite know what a chemist was, but I kept it up and got my Ph.D. in physical chemistry. My first job out of school was to do basic research at Johns Hopkins University's applied physics lab. Then William Shockley [co-discoverer of semiconductors] caught up with me.
SA: So, tell me about Johns Hopkins. Were you working on weapons research and military research?
GM: I wasn't in weapons research. In the applied physics lab there was what they called the research center, which was essentially doing basic research on . . . well, on whatever we were interested in, almost. I was looking at the shapes of infrared absorption lines and some spectroscopic study of flames.
SA: Why were you dissatisfied with that job?
GM: First of all, the team I was with was breaking up, and my two bosses were moving out. I started calculating the cost per word in the published articles [that emerged from the lab] and decided that at $5 a word, I wasn't sure that the government was getting its money's worth. I didn't know whether anybody was even reading them.
I decided I really wanted to get closer to something with practical application. I was looking for some technical stuff that would lead to a real product. I didn't know quite what.
I interviewed at several places, one of which was the Lawrence Livermore Lab out here, and considered thermonuclear devices as a practical application. That's where Shockley got my name, actually. They made an offer to me, and I decided to take the position of Inspector of Nuclear Explosions.
SA: That's what the job involved?
GM: Essentially. Shockley got permission to go through Livermore Lab's files of all the people to whom they had made offers or who had turned them down. He thought he needed a chemist in his new operation; chemists had proved useful things in his group at Bell Laboratories. So that's how he came up with me. I had no background whatsoever in semiconductors. I did at least know who Shockley was, because I had heard him talk in Washington.