Wednesday, May 27, 2015

More about the Silicon Valley legend

My friend Shane Greenstein this week wrote a book review of Moore’s Law, a biography of the famous Silicon Valley chemist, entrepreneur, billionaire, philanthropist and visionary. As Shane opened his Wall Street Journal commentary:

Fifty years ago, Gordon Moore formulated his famous “law,” typically summarized as “the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit will double every two years.” The accumulation of exponential improvements that he foresaw has indeed ushered in perpetual reductions in the cost of computing and the size of computers. And it’s at the core of the information technology revolution.
Even before his famous 1965 paper, Moore was a Silicon Valley pioneer, there when they put the silicon in Silicon Valley. After attending SJSU, Cal and Caltech, in 1956 Moore went to work for (later Nobelist) Bill Shockley, working on the technical challenges of adapting silicon (rather than germanium) to construct reliable semiconductor devices.

The next year, Moore and others of the Traitorous Eight set the pattern for the Valley when they Shockley Semiconductor to found Fairchild Semiconductor — the Valley’s first (unsanctioned) spinoff. In 1968, two of the eight — Moore and Robert Noyce — took Andy Grove to start Intel. (Four years later, fellow Traitor Gene Kleiner joined Tom Perkins to found the Valley’s legendary VC firm)..

Never fired and married to the same woman for 60+ years, Moore was neither a showman nor celebrity like the late Steve Jobs. Arguably, he and his compatriots did more than anyone else to set the pace of Silicon Valley (at least during the five decades when there was still silicon in Silicon Valley).

The authors of this latest biography — “a chemist, a historian and a journalist” — offer the definitive story of the 86-year-old chemist. As Shane concludes:
The authors have material on just about everything in Mr. Moore’s life—his relationships with his wife and children, the Porsche he drove, even his childhood adventures with nitroglycerin. The detail, on occasion, becomes overwhelming.

Yet the book brings an insider’s perspective into the discussion of Moore’s law. What became the law first emerged in 1965, in an article modestly titled “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” published in the journal Electronics. By the authors’ account, nobody paid much attention to it at the time. Why do we know it today? Mr. Moore revisited the idea in 1975, updated it and devoted public speeches to it. Others began to notice its deep foundations at the boundaries of science and production; Carver Mead, a longtime professor at Caltech, was the one who actually coined the term “Moore’s Law.”

Gordon Moore’s forecast was spectacularly right. Yet, as this compelling biography proves, even if he had never hazarded it, he would remain a legend in Silicon Valley.
Alas, it’s hard to deny the passing of this era. Moore is the only one of the Intel founders still alive, and one of only two (with Jay Last) of the Fairchild founders. Despite its continuing microprocessor monopoly, nearly 15 years later Intel stock is still only half its peak level of August 2000. Internet software — not electronics — is where Kleiner Perkins is making its money nowadays.