The Legacy of Bob Noyce

By Tom Waldrop

This February, a new documentary about the rise of Silicon Valley and the story of Bob Noyce will air on the Public Broadcasting System’s American Experience, the most-watched history series on American television.

As the filmmakers put it, the radical innovations of the brilliant, charismatic young physicist Noyce included the integrated circuit, which transformed the way the world works, plays, and communicates, and has made possible everything from space exploration to smart phones, pacemakers to microwaves. In other words, all of modern electronics and, directly or indirectly, most of modern technology.

A quote from Bob guards the entrance to the Robert Noyce Building: “Innovation is everything.”

Hasn’t innovation moved on to someplace else? Like consumer electronics, e-readers, phones, tablets – all the cool gadgets in the Top Ten Black Friday Most Popular Items list?

You could be forgiven for having missed it, or for thinking it didn’t matter much: Recently the IEEE named two retired Intel technologists, Sunlin Chou and Youssef El-Mansy, the next winners of its Robert N. Noyce Medal.

All Chou and El-Mansy did was this: Establish a research-development manufacturing methodology that led to industry leadership in logic technology for advanced microprocessor products. And that led to strained silicon at 90 nanometers, high-k and metal gate at 45nm, and tri-gate transistors at 22nm. Along the way, organizational innovations from Chou and El-Mansy included Copy Exactly, a focus on defect reduction, increased work-in-process turns, and more.

Andy Grove, in an email to them, wrote: “Bob Noyce, who knew a thing or two about exceptional contributions, would be even more emphatic in congratulating you. But what makes me even more proud and awestruck is how you have done all this, generation after generation, like clockwork, with no histrionics, just focusing on the science, the discipline, the taking of reasoned risk – all the things Intel has been about. I salute the two of you and the thousands who helped you.”

Andy Bryant said: “They are a big part of what made Intel Intel. They were that good. What they accomplished was remarkable.”

In America’s revolutionary 1960s, when antiwar demonstrations, student protests on college campuses, and the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley held society’s attention, Gordon Moore famously commented that he thought the people in this industry, those working in labs and fabs, were the real revolutionaries. They saw they were changing a lot of the way the world was going to operate.

Bob’s partner in Fairchild and Intel, Gordon; other Fairchild colleagues such as Jean Hoerni, whose planar process made ICs happen; the young Hungarian émigrés Andy Grove and Les Vadasz – who followed Bob and Gordon to get Intel off the ground – were but the first in a string of world-class scientists and engineers who created, nurtured, preserved, and advanced the technology defined by Moore’s Law.

But this is just history, right? Is this really relevant? Now?  

Fifty years since the small band of revolutionaries at Fairchild set out on this path, Intel is stuffed with such world class technologists. Who else could have carried us here? Youssef retired in 2004, and Sunlin left in 2005. The heartbeat stays strong.

Sunlin and Youssef were simply the best in a crucial era.

In any era, whether the eras of the first ICs, the first microchips, the first microprocessor, or today, what Grove said about the two awardees –generation after generation, like clockwork, no histrionics, focusing on the science and the discipline, taking reasoned risk – is what Intel, its founders, and its current generation of innovators are all about.

It’s not all in the history books yet; those are still being written. It is the future as well. The work of Chou and El-Mansy perfectly continued the legacy of Bob Noyce. And, like Noyce’s amazing contributions, it lights the way to the story of the future.

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