Monday, December 12, 2011

Robert Norton Noyce (1927 - 1990)

 Robert Norton Noyce was born December 12, 1927 in Burlington, Iowa. A noted visionary and natural leader, Robert Noyce helped to create a new industry when he developed the technology that would eventually become the microchip. Noted as one of the original computer entrepreneurs, he founded two companies that would largely shape today’s computer industry—Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel.
Bob Noyce's nickname was the "Mayor of Silicon Valley."   He was one of the very first scientists to work in the area -- long before the stretch of California had earned the Silicon name -- and he ran two of the companies that had the greatest impact on the silicon industry: Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel.  He also invented the integrated chip, one of the stepping stones along the way to the microprocessors in today's computers.  

Noyce, the son of a preacher, grew up in Grinnell, Iowa. He was a physics major at Grinnell College, and exhibited while there an almost baffling amount of confidence.  He was always the leader of the crowd.  This could turn against him occasionally -- the local farmers didn't approve of him and weren't likely to forgive quickly when he did something like steal a pig for a college luau.  The prank nearly got Noyce expelled, even though the only reason the farmer knew about it was because Noyce had confessed and offered to pay for it.  

While in college, Noyce's physics professor Grant Gale got hold of two of the very first transistors ever to come out of Bell Labs.  Gale showed them off to his class and Noyce was hooked.  The field was young, though, so when Noyce went to MIT in 1948 for his Ph.D., he found he knew more about transistors than many of his professors. 
After a brief stint making transistors for the electronics firm Philco, Noyce decided he wanted to work at Shockley Semiconductor.  In a single day, he flew with his wife and two kids to California, bought a house, and went to visit Shockley to ask for a job -- in that order. 

As it was, Shockley and Noyce's scientific vision -- and egos -- clashed.  When seven of the young researchers at Shockley semiconductor got together to consider leaving the company, they realized they needed a leader.  All seven thought Noyce, aged 29 but full of confidence, was the natural choice.  So Noyce became the eighth in the group that left Shockley in 1957 and founded Fairchild Semiconductor. 

Noyce was the general manager of the company and while there invented the integrated chip -- a chip of silicon with many transistors all etched into it at once. Fairchild Semiconductor filed a patent for a semiconductor integrated circuit based on the planar process on July 30, 1959. That was the first time he revolutionized the semiconductor industry.  He stayed with Fairchild until 1968, when he left with Gordon Moore to found Intel.  At Intel he oversaw Ted Hoff's invention of the microprocessor -- that was his second revolution.  

At both companies, Noyce introduced a very casual working atmosphere, the kind of atmosphere that has become a cultural stereotype of how California companies work.  But along with that open atmosphere came responsibility.  Noyce learned from Shockley's mistakes and he gave his young, bright employees phenomenal room to accomplish what they wished, in many ways defining the Silicon Valley working style was his third revolution. 

Noyce was working to prevent the acquisition of a Silicon Valley materials supplier by a Japanese concern when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in July 1990 at his home in Austin, Texas. He was 62 years old.


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