In their new book, Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary, authors Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock and Rachel Jones chronicle the life and career of Intel co-founder and microprocessor prophet Gordon Moore. Trained as a chemist, Moore would rise from humble beginnings to develop the seminal “Moore’s law” based on the prediction that silicon transistors within microchips would double and redouble relentlessly—with ever-increasing use in an ever-proliferating array of products—even as their cost tumbled across the decades.
In this excerpt from the book’s prelude the authors recount the evening Nobel laureate physicist William Shockley recruited Moore to join a team whose mission would be to “perfect and mass-produce a novel silicon-based version of the transistor.”
Excerpted with permission from Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary, by Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock and Rachel Jones. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.
This Is Shockley
The call proved fateful. At the time, it seemed merely unusual. In February 1956, not even scientific celebrities routinely telephoned long distance, especially if it was a simple matter of contacting an unknown young nerd.
The celebrity was William Shockley, renowned researcher and defense consultant, the nerd a postdoctoral chemist named Gordon Moore, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Moore had just arrived home from work at a government-funded, Cold War–oriented lab. He was tired and more than ready for the dinner his stay-at-home wife, Betty, had prepared. One-year-old son Ken was in his high chair. The cat was nosing its bowl. It was an ordinary end to an ordinary day.
The phone rang. Answering machines were unknown, so Moore perforce picked up: “Hello?” The response, deep and confident: “This is Shockley.” Moore knew the name right away. William Bradford Shockley was a certified scientific god, revered as one of the world’s leading solid-state physicists, co-inventor of the era’s most promising breakthrough in electronics— the transistor—for which he would shortly be awarded the Nobel Prize. The transistor was a wholly new type of on-off switch, a “semiconductor,” offering tantalizing possibilities in military applications. Moore, who had recently heard Shockley lecture at the Cosmos Club in nearby Washington, D.C., was shocked to realize a star was on the line.
But why was Shockley calling? The reason quickly emerged. His unabashed boast was that he was hiring the best and brightest young PhDs to join his venture in the little-known town of Mountain View, California. The aim? To perfect and mass-produce a novel silicon-based version of the transistor. This minute, solid device, no bigger than a fingernail, would be composed of silicon treated chemically in complex ways. It promised unprecedented standards of reliability to electronic devices. Shockley was counting on the reality that, in high-stakes defense markets, performance always trumped mere price. To accomplish his ambition, he urgently needed a competent chemist. He knew that Moore had recently turned down a position at a nuclear weapons lab in California. Might this young scientist be interested in the race to produce a reliable silicon transistor instead?
Moore was interested. After two years in the Washington, D.C., area, he had become distinctly uneasy about both the direction of his career and the work of the government lab at which he labored. Shockley’s call, implying that Moore might join his fledgling enterprise, offered an intriguing possibility— not least because Mountain View was close to Gordon’s and Betty’s families. As a fifth-generation Californian, languishing on the East Coast, he longed to return to his roots and to western living. Quickly agreeing to fly out to meet Shockley, he hung up and shared the startling news with his wife. “The window’s opening,” Betty responded. “We’d better make a beeline for it.”
Gordon Moore was not someone to flaunt his talents. Nothing in his life to this point indicated that he was destined for greatness. Born on January 3, 1929, in remote Pescadero, three miles from the Pacific Ocean, he was the quiet second son to a steady, unexceptional local couple: Mira Moore and her husband, Walter, the town’s part-time constable. On the day of Gordon’s birth, Wall Street brokers a continent away were busy recalling staff from vacation. “As goes the opening, so goes the year,” they gleefully remarked, savoring January’s sharp rise. What happened in the months that followed, no one could have imagined.
The stock market’s collapse in 1929 signaled the end of an era. Within two decades, British and European leadership—in politics, science, and business—would be in ruins. Through a major shift in the empires of the world, the United States would become the dominant superpower, locked with the Soviet Union in a tense Cold War embrace. As these new realities took hold, California would establish itself as a leading center of high-tech defense industries and an academic leader in the physical sciences. Large changes, indeed. Still larger, and only today becoming fully obvious, would be the changes that flowed from the silicon transistor and the call to Moore. Those changes have revolutionized our lives and continue to do so in accelerating fashion.
On that cold February evening in 1956, listening to Bill Shockley’s pitch, Gordon Moore had little clue how fateful the moment was, but he and Betty saw clearly enough how important it could be for their own immediate future. Within three months, he was working for Shockley. Eighteen months on from the phone call, undaunted by Shockley’s Nobel Prize, he would lead a revolt against his boss and with seven colleagues—“the Traitorous Eight”—form Fairchild Semiconductor, the breakaway start-up in what, as a direct result of their action, became Silicon Valley. Tom Wolfe would later remark, “Brainpower was the entire franchise. On that day was born the concept that would make the semiconductor business as wild as show business: defection capital.” The eight, betting their future on the silicon transistor, quickly made good on their wager. They delivered their first hundred transistors to International Business Machines (IBM) in August 1958, at the handsome price of $150 each. Within two years, Moore and his colleagues had made their initial fortunes. Their company would go on to spawn more than four hundred spin-offs, the most successful of which, Intel, was cofounded by Moore himself.
At Fairchild a team in Gordon Moore’s laboratory created a remarkable invention: the silicon integrated circuit, otherwise known as the “microchip.” This was an entire electronic circuit, built from a host of transistors chemically printed onto a single sliver of silicon. In the microchip, Gordon Moore glimpsed an astonishing future. Trained as an experimental chemist, he first observed and then, through his work, fulfilled his prophecy for silicon transistors within these microchips: that they would double and redouble relentlessly—with ever-increasing use in an ever-proliferating array of products—even as their cost tumbled across the decades. This repeated doubling with plummeting price is known as “Moore’s Law.”
Moore’s own deeper claim, arising as the clamor of the sixties subsided, was nothing if not bold: “We are bringing about the next great revolution in the history of mankind—the transition to the electronic age.” At the time, hardly anyone took notice. Nevertheless, Intel would become the world’s preeminent semiconductor manufacturer, as Moore, its chief strategist and largest shareholder, moved from research and development (R&D) head to longest-serving chief executive officer (CEO), board chair, and finally chair emeritus. By 1997, when he stepped down as board chair, Intel was in the top-fifty companies of the Fortune 500, Silicon Valley was the place to be, the electronic revolution was increasingly visible, and Moore himself—its theorist, quiet architect, and key facilitator—was closing in on a wealth comfortably in excess of $20 billion. Turning to become a major philanthropist, he would set records for the largest gifts ever made to conservation and to higher education. Gordon Moore transformed not only his own realities, but also those of his region, to say nothing of the global domains of research and business, the conduct of warfare, and the patterns of everyday experience.
The transistor has gone from a rare, exotic item of military hardware to the one essential ingredient in modern life. It underlies the electronic age and virtual reality: the realms of Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Amazon; of drones, government surveillance, “big data,” “the cloud,” and high-speed trading; of personal computers, Internet pornography, video gaming, smartphones, apps, tablets, and TVs—and soon of driverless automobiles, personalized medicine, fully automated surgery, and ubiquitous robots. All these wonders, enabling brainpower to revolutionize life, are simultaneously digital (wholly formed by an endless stream of ones and zeros) and material, handled and recorded by silicon transistors in microchips of staggering complexity.
Truth be told, many do not comprehend this new world or the fresh vistas it has opened to the imagination. Electronic reality allows us to be both present and absent, traveling in space and time via devices underpinned by billions of transistors. In 2016 well over 100 billion (100,000 million) transistors will be produced for every human being on the planet. This incredible profusion, springing directly from the ideas and work of Gordon Moore, is the key to Silicon Valley and to the altered dimensions of ordinary life. In digital electronics, the silicon transistor is the brick, the basic building block, yet Moore himself, the enabler of its availability and prophet of its role, today in his mid eighties, remains little known. Why?
A clue is to be found in the paradoxes that characterize his life. He is one of the world’s most exceptional achievers, yet he has consistently avoided opportunities to raise his profile. When Intel was named Electronics Company of the Year, his right-hand man, Andy Grove, beamed straight into the photographer’s lens at the awards presentation. Moore— Intel’s CEO—was mostly out of the frame, doing “something inscrutable in the margins.” Internally driven and governed by the ticking of his watch, Moore believed his vision had global consequence yet worked quietly, within miles of where he was born and raised, eschewing the trappings of wealth and fame. His pursuit of revolutionary electronics brought extraordinary change, even as—with remarkable focus—he stuck to his knitting, doing one single important thing to the best of his ability. The logo “Intel Inside” speaks both of transistors and of Gordon Moore.
Whereas Larry Ellison, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and a host of other immigrants to Silicon Valley command media attention, Moore has chosen to stay low-key. He has always known who he was, understood what he needed to do, and stayed on task. As far back as the mid-1970s, he was pointing to silicon electronics as “a major revolution in the history of mankind, as important as the Industrial Revolution.” With his immediate colleagues, he was at its leading edge and foresaw how the transistor would leverage the power of human intellect. With a modesty that belied his passion, tenacity, and clarity of vision, Gordon Moore built one of the world’s most successful companies, demonstrated the power of silicon technology, and established the relentless cadence of Moore’s Law.
Today we know the truth of his perceptions and enjoy the fruits of his labors, even as we struggle to adjust to the scope of the novelties engendered by the transistor. With technical brilliance, focus, and unwearied assiduity, Gordon Moore has transformed our world in a way no political figure has done. On one level, Moore’s story appears simple: his ability, drive, and persistence are, in hindsight, clear and remarkable. Yet at a deeper level, he provides a fascinating picture of a complex man—someone shaped by his pioneer heritage, small-town roots, and early familial experiences, a person characterized by avoidant tendencies, practical bent, and restless questing. Betty, his wife of sixty-five years, once asked, “What is he running from?” Moore’s Law is an exploration of forces both obvious and hidden that drove Gordon Moore to find his rest in work that is transforming all our lives.