Robert Noyce: Mayor of Silicon Valley

Biographer Leslie Berlin reflects on Intel co-founder and industry giant Robert Noyce.

Robert Noyce co-founded Intel with Gordon Moore and invented the first practical integrated circuit. He was also a founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, a mentor to Steve Jobs and one of the visionaries who made Silicon Valley what it is today. To mark the occasion of what would have been his 85th birthday — Noyce was born Dec. 12, 1927 and died in 1990 at age 62 — his biographer, Leslie Berlin, who wrote “The Man Behind the Microchip” talked about how the people who knew Noyce described him, his unique connection with Jobs and how he defied the hi-tech engineering stereotype of his day.

Man Behind the Microchip Book Cover

Leslie Berlin's biography of Robert Noyce, "The Man Behind the Microchip," was published in 2005.

How did you come to write a biography about Robert Noyce?

I knew that I wanted to write a book about Silicon Valley; this was for my doctoral dissertation [at Stanford University]. I thought a logical place to start would be to read everything that I could get my hands on about Silicon Valley. And this fellow, Bob Noyce, just kept popping up in every context that I would look at.

I would think, “I want to understand entrepreneurship.” And there would be Noyce with Fairchild and Intel. Or I’d want to learn about technology, and there would be Noyce with the invention of the integrated circuit and his influence on the microprocessor. What about angel investing? Oh, there’s Noyce. What about the role of government in supporting the semiconductor industry? There’s Noyce again.

It became clear to me that to really understand Silicon Valley — to take sort of a core sample of its history — I’d want to read a biography of this guy, Bob Noyce. It turned out there wasn’t one, so I decided to write it.

You interviewed more than 100 people for the book. Who was the toughest interview for you to get?

I’m not sure I got a single “no.” I talked to people like Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs and Gordon Moore and Andy Grove. And I think that is a testament to how much people respected and admired Bob Noyce.

Jobs was in his 20s and Noyce in his early 50s when they became friends. What did Steve Jobs say to you about Noyce?

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore at SC1 1970

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore in front of the Intel SC1 building in Santa Clara in 1970.

Jobs was making an active effort to connect back to the previous generation of entrepreneurs, not just Noyce but also Andy Grove and Jerry Sanders of AMD. He told me, “You can’t really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before.”

By placing himself at the knee of the previous generations of entrepreneurs, he was essentially able to live the experience of the past at the same time he was living the present.

What was Jobs’ relationship with Noyce?

It was very much a kind of familial relationship, where Jobs would ride up on his motorcycle in the front of Noyce’s house and just pop in. They did a lot of flying together in Noyce’s plane, and skiing. I think Noyce may have taught Jobs to ski.

He’d call [Noyce] at midnight. Ann [Bowers], Noyce’s wife, told me that Noyce would say, “If he calls one more time I’m just not going to pick up the phone!” but he couldn’t help himself; he would pick up the phone.

Robert Noyce Google Doodle

On Dec. 12, 2011, Google honored Robert Noyce with a "Google Doodle" of the Intel 4004 microprocessor.

I think that what they had in common was this sense of the limitless potential of the future, and a notion that you could just try to see ahead of your time and then do the work to make that future come into reality. They were separated by almost 30 years, but that was the same spark at work inside them both.

How did the people you interviewed describe Bob Noyce?

The first word that comes to mind with him is “magnetic.” Every one of the people I talked to about Bob Noyce said when he talked to you, you felt like you were the only person in the room. He was genuinely interested in what was going on in people’s lives. He was very unassuming and interested in the world around him. Someone said he was like a sponge.

He definitely didn’t fit the stereotype of the introverted scientist.

No, he wasn’t what people would think of at that time when there was the notion that “all techie people wear pocket protectors.” He was Phi Beta Kappa and won a lot of other awards. But when he graduated from Grinnell College, he said that the award he valued most was the Brown Derby Prize, which was given to the senior student who had the best grades with the least amount of work.

I think this sense that things came very easily to him. That’s very appealing in someone, that he seemed to be able to do everything. He was just an absolutely excellent skier, one of these people who would hire helicopters to drop him at the top of mountains so he could ski down. He piloted his own plane.

Robert Noyce with Motherboard 1959

In 1959, Robert Noyce co-invented the integrated circuit.

But he was this very humble, nice guy. That’s an incredibly appealing combination and made him a very effective leader, especially when you couple that with his trust in the people around him and his absolute insistence that Intel hire only the best.

A number of the people I talked to actually broke down in tears telling me that they had done the best work of their lives for Bob Noyce. And it was this combination of inspiration and confidence in the employee that they could do even more than they thought they could do.

One thing people may find surprising is that Noyce was not a ringleader, but the last one to join the “Traitorous Eight,” the group who left William Shockley’s lab to start Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957.

As someone said, “If Noyce climbed in any boat, he immediately became captain.” But, yes, he did climb in the boat last. Remember, he had more going for him at Shockley [Semiconductor Laboratory] than anybody else because he was the No. 2 guy in the lab. And he was at that stage of his life where he had a young family and was worried about making the payments on an expensive dishwasher that they’d just bought. He was a little afraid to leave.

When they told Shockley that they were leaving, the attorney told the guys that their leaving was a shameful act and they would never be able to show their faces in this town again. It was an incredibly risky move they were making.

But the risk paid off, and after achieving huge success at Fairchild, he and Moore left to start Intel in 1968. Other than worrying that at age 40 he was too old to start a new company, did he have any fears about the move?

Andy Grove Robert Noyce Gordon Moore 1978

Andy Grove, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore in 1978.

I’d say in starting Intel he was much more confident. He knew that he and Gordon were an excellent team. He knew in what way his role would be most valuable. And later, he recognized when it was time for him to leave. He knew that his greatest value to Intel was when it was just getting started. And he always was a part of Intel for his entire life. He chaired the board, then became a member of the board.

You could not have asked for a stronger founding team than [Noyce and Moore]. They had two of the most important positions at the most important semiconductor company in history, Fairchild Semiconductor. They had these gold-plated resumes. And consequently, the initial funding round [for Intel] was just Arthur Rock calling people to back this company. I think it took 18 hours, and Arthur said that’s only because in those days people had to actually call you back. There weren’t any faxes or email or cellphones.

Rock — who went on to fund so many companies, among them Apple — said that Intel was the only time in his career that he was 100 percent positive the company was going to be a hit.

We’ve all heard about Moore’s Law. What might Noyce’s Law be?

This is a great example of the difference between Moore and Noyce. Gordon’s law is completely quantifiable. It’s based on data points on a graph growing in an exponential manner.

Noyce never would have thought that anyone needed to be making laws. That’s just not the way he would have been. Noyce’s Law, were he to have one, would be more like a rallying cry: “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful.”

Robert Noyce: Mayor of Silicon Valley

Biographer Leslie Berlin reflects on Intel co-founder and industry giant Robert Noyce.

Robert Noyce co-founded Intel with Gordon Moore and invented the first practical integrated circuit. He was also a founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, a mentor to Steve Jobs and one of the visionaries who made Silicon Valley what it is today. To mark the occasion of what would have been his 85th birthday — Noyce was born Dec. 12, 1927 and died in 1990 at age 62 — his biographer, Leslie Berlin, who wrote “The Man Behind the Microchip” talked about how the people who knew Noyce described him, his unique connection with Jobs and how he defied the hi-tech engineering stereotype of his day.

Man Behind the Microchip Book Cover

Leslie Berlin's biography of Robert Noyce, "The Man Behind the Microchip," was published in 2005.

How did you come to write a biography about Robert Noyce?

I knew that I wanted to write a book about Silicon Valley; this was for my doctoral dissertation [at Stanford University]. I thought a logical place to start would be to read everything that I could get my hands on about Silicon Valley. And this fellow, Bob Noyce, just kept popping up in every context that I would look at.

I would think, “I want to understand entrepreneurship.” And there would be Noyce with Fairchild and Intel. Or I’d want to learn about technology, and there would be Noyce with the invention of the integrated circuit and his influence on the microprocessor. What about angel investing? Oh, there’s Noyce. What about the role of government in supporting the semiconductor industry? There’s Noyce again.

It became clear to me that to really understand Silicon Valley — to take sort of a core sample of its history — I’d want to read a biography of this guy, Bob Noyce. It turned out there wasn’t one, so I decided to write it.

You interviewed more than 100 people for the book. Who was the toughest interview for you to get?

I’m not sure I got a single “no.” I talked to people like Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs and Gordon Moore and Andy Grove. And I think that is a testament to how much people respected and admired Bob Noyce.

Jobs was in his 20s and Noyce in his early 50s when they became friends. What did Steve Jobs say to you about Noyce?

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore at SC1 1970

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore in front of the Intel SC1 building in Santa Clara in 1970.

Jobs was making an active effort to connect back to the previous generation of entrepreneurs, not just Noyce but also Andy Grove and Jerry Sanders of AMD. He told me, “You can’t really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before.”

By placing himself at the knee of the previous generations of entrepreneurs, he was essentially able to live the experience of the past at the same time he was living the present.

What was Jobs’ relationship with Noyce?

It was very much a kind of familial relationship, where Jobs would ride up on his motorcycle in the front of Noyce’s house and just pop in. They did a lot of flying together in Noyce’s plane, and skiing. I think Noyce may have taught Jobs to ski.

He’d call [Noyce] at midnight. Ann [Bowers], Noyce’s wife, told me that Noyce would say, “If he calls one more time I’m just not going to pick up the phone!” but he couldn’t help himself; he would pick up the phone.

Robert Noyce Google Doodle

On Dec. 12, 2011, Google honored Robert Noyce with a "Google Doodle" of the Intel 4004 microprocessor.

I think that what they had in common was this sense of the limitless potential of the future, and a notion that you could just try to see ahead of your time and then do the work to make that future come into reality. They were separated by almost 30 years, but that was the same spark at work inside them both.

How did the people you interviewed describe Bob Noyce?

The first word that comes to mind with him is “magnetic.” Every one of the people I talked to about Bob Noyce said when he talked to you, you felt like you were the only person in the room. He was genuinely interested in what was going on in people’s lives. He was very unassuming and interested in the world around him. Someone said he was like a sponge.

He definitely didn’t fit the stereotype of the introverted scientist.

No, he wasn’t what people would think of at that time when there was the notion that “all techie people wear pocket protectors.” He was Phi Beta Kappa and won a lot of other awards. But when he graduated from Grinnell College, he said that the award he valued most was the Brown Derby Prize, which was given to the senior student who had the best grades with the least amount of work.

I think this sense that things came very easily to him. That’s very appealing in someone, that he seemed to be able to do everything. He was just an absolutely excellent skier, one of these people who would hire helicopters to drop him at the top of mountains so he could ski down. He piloted his own plane.

Robert Noyce with Motherboard 1959

In 1959, Robert Noyce co-invented the integrated circuit.

But he was this very humble, nice guy. That’s an incredibly appealing combination and made him a very effective leader, especially when you couple that with his trust in the people around him and his absolute insistence that Intel hire only the best.

A number of the people I talked to actually broke down in tears telling me that they had done the best work of their lives for Bob Noyce. And it was this combination of inspiration and confidence in the employee that they could do even more than they thought they could do.

One thing people may find surprising is that Noyce was not a ringleader, but the last one to join the “Traitorous Eight,” the group who left William Shockley’s lab to start Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957.

As someone said, “If Noyce climbed in any boat, he immediately became captain.” But, yes, he did climb in the boat last. Remember, he had more going for him at Shockley [Semiconductor Laboratory] than anybody else because he was the No. 2 guy in the lab. And he was at that stage of his life where he had a young family and was worried about making the payments on an expensive dishwasher that they’d just bought. He was a little afraid to leave.

When they told Shockley that they were leaving, the attorney told the guys that their leaving was a shameful act and they would never be able to show their faces in this town again. It was an incredibly risky move they were making.

But the risk paid off, and after achieving huge success at Fairchild, he and Moore left to start Intel in 1968. Other than worrying that at age 40 he was too old to start a new company, did he have any fears about the move?

Andy Grove Robert Noyce Gordon Moore 1978

Andy Grove, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore in 1978.

I’d say in starting Intel he was much more confident. He knew that he and Gordon were an excellent team. He knew in what way his role would be most valuable. And later, he recognized when it was time for him to leave. He knew that his greatest value to Intel was when it was just getting started. And he always was a part of Intel for his entire life. He chaired the board, then became a member of the board.

You could not have asked for a stronger founding team than [Noyce and Moore]. They had two of the most important positions at the most important semiconductor company in history, Fairchild Semiconductor. They had these gold-plated resumes. And consequently, the initial funding round [for Intel] was just Arthur Rock calling people to back this company. I think it took 18 hours, and Arthur said that’s only because in those days people had to actually call you back. There weren’t any faxes or email or cellphones.

Rock — who went on to fund so many companies, among them Apple — said that Intel was the only time in his career that he was 100 percent positive the company was going to be a hit.

We’ve all heard about Moore’s Law. What might Noyce’s Law be?

This is a great example of the difference between Moore and Noyce. Gordon’s law is completely quantifiable. It’s based on data points on a graph growing in an exponential manner.

Noyce never would have thought that anyone needed to be making laws. That’s just not the way he would have been. Noyce’s Law, were he to have one, would be more like a rallying cry: “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful.”