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The Whole Noyce

Stanford historian Leslie Berlin tracks the high-tech life of chip father Robert Noyce in a new biography

By Matt Reed

EVEN AS A BOY growing up in Iowa in the 1940s, Robert Noyce was a lot of things: champion diver, singer, preacher's son, prankster, valedictorian, leader, risk-taker. When he was 12, he built a glider and amazed the neighborhood when he ran off the roof of an Iowa barn and actually flew for several seconds. One oft-told story relates how Noyce was nearly expelled from Grinnell College for stealing a farmer's pig for a dormitory luau. As a graduate student at MIT, his quick mind and easy way with women earned him the nickname "Rapid Robert."

As an adult, Noyce's restlessness, confidence and charisma marked an extraordinary life. In the 1950s, he co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and then, with Gordon Moore, Intel in the 1960s. He is credited, most importantly, as a co-inventor of the microchip, also known as the integrated circuit, the device that runs computers and cellular phones. Up until his death in 1990, he invested in countless startup companies and mentored young techies like Steve Jobs. He was, as Tom Wolfe wrote in a 1983 profile for Esquire, "the father of Silicon Valley."

The new biography The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley is the result of four years of research by Stanford historian and Palo Alto resident Leslie Berlin. While journalist T.R. Reid's 1985 book, The Chip, also looked at Noyce's life and career, Berlin is the first to write a biography of the man. Her well-written account offers a window, as she notes, into the transformation of "the once rural Santa Clara Valley into a high-tech business machine called Silicon Valley."

From fruit orchards to office parks and Department of Defense contracts, Berlin tracks the development of the tech industry. There are several chapters on the founding of Fairchild and of Intel. Throughout are details on Noyce's sometimes rocky personal life and his business relationships with Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Eugene Kleiner, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet. Berlin writes that while Noyce was president of Intel through the early 1970s, he was basically the ideas man—a "wild expansionist," according to Moore; Moore and Grove managed the day-to-day operations. Grove, whose forceful, direct style contrasted with Noyce's popular charm, tells Berlin that Noyce brought up the subject of a power transfer in a 1974 meeting. "How can we get you ready for more responsibility?" asked Noyce. "You can give me the job," Grove replied.

There are details on the development of venture capital in the valley. For a variety of reasons, Noyce and partners found it much easier to find funding for Intel in 1968 than for Fairchild in 1957, for instance. Stock options, public offerings, informal work environments, the exhilaration and hard work that goes with the startup experience: the Silicon Valley way of work is shown taking root as the semiconductor industry picks up speed in the 1960s. As Steve Jobs tells Berlin, "You can't really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before."

Berlin writes that Noyce believed his invention of the microchip was a challenge to future generations, and he showed his enthusiasm for new ideas and startups in his later years, providing seed money to a number of small companies. "Even if the latest generation of entrepreneurs do not know his name," Berlin writes, "his influence endures in a set of ideals that have become an indelible part of American high-tech culture: knowledge trumps hierarchy, every idea can be taken farther, new and interesting is better than established and safe, go for broke or don't go at all."

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley, by Leslie Berlin; Oxford; 402 pages; $30 cloth.

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From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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