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Noyce, Robert


Robert Noyce was one of the giants of 20th century high-tech science and the multi-billion dollar business it spawned. Along with 15 other patents, he was a co-inventor of the integrated circuit, a device former National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch called "the key invention of the 20th century." In addition to his contributions to computer technology, Noyce co-founded two of the most influential companies in the computer industry, Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Those companies in large measure established the region around Palo Alto and San Jose, Californianow universally known as Silicon Valleyas the premier area for computer research, development, and manufacture; and earned Noyce the nickname "the Mayor of Silicon Valley." For the last decade of his life, Noyce was an outspoken advocate of the American microprocessor and computer industry and actively lobbied in Washington for measures that would protect American companies from the threat of unfair Japanese competition. He died in 1990.


Robert Norton Noyce was born in Burlington Iowa on December 12, 1927. He grew up, the son of a Congregationalist minister, in nearby Grinnell, Iowa. As a boy he tinkered with machines and chemistry; in later life he identified his origins as the roots of his inventiveness. "In a small town," he told writer Tom Wolfe, "when something breaks down, you don't wait around for a new part, because it's not coming. You make it yourself." In 1948, while Noyce was studying at Grinnell College, his physics teacher, Grant Gale, obtained two of the first transistors in the world, and began teaching the first college class in solid state electronics anywhere. Noyce was captivated by the subject, and went on to do Ph.D. work on it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

With degree in hand in 1953, Noyce went to work for vacuum tube maker Philco Corp. for three years. He finally left to join Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California, where William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, was pursuing cutting-edge research on four-layer diodes. Although Noyce acknowledged Shockley as the "guru, after whom the disciples. . .followed," the Nobel Prize winner was both difficult to work with and had different ideas than Noyce and others about the most promising directions for research.

In 1957, Noyce and seven colleagues, left Shock-ley's company. With the assistance of venture capitalist Arthur Rock and funding from the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Company, they founded a new company, Fairchild Semiconductor. The "Gang of Eight" set up shop in an old warehouse in Mountain View, down the road from Shockley's lab. It was a time of growing interest in transistors for consumer goods; government interest in research was driven by the Soviet's launch of Sputnik. In that climate, Fairchild was poised for great things. One of Noyce's first projects was to develop a simple means around the complicated wiring together of individual transistors. Noyce's idea was to put all the transistors onto a single piece of silicon without any wires. The result was the first silicon integrated circuit in mid-1959. It came just months after Texas Instruments' Jack Kilby invented one. After a protracted patent battle, the two men were recognized as co-inventors. The integrated circuit was a key technology that made possible other inventions ranging from the pocket calculator to the onboard computers used by NASA in their moon shots.


Noyce was named Fairchild's General Manager in 1959, and under his leadership the firm's sales rose from less than $10,000 a year to over $130 billion in 1968. By then, Noyce was ready to form his own company. With Gordon Moore, another Shockley defector, and venture capitalist Arthur Rock, Noyce founded Intel Corporation, the firm that almost single-handedly made possible the personal computer revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1970s, working on the relatively neglected area of computer memory, Noyce, Moore, and Intel developed a string of innovations: the 1103 memory chip; the 4004 CPU chip, considered the world's first microprocessor; the 8080, the first 8-bit microprocessor; the 8086, a 16-bit microprocessor.

It was also at Intel that a genius for business that equaled his genius for electronics came into full flower. Already developed at Fairchild, he established a company culture he called a "meritocracy," in which there was virtually no traditional hierarchy, no executive parking spots, and no isolated offices. Researchers were given nearly complete autonomy over their projects. At Intel Noyce established the stock option, rather than profit-sharing, as a means of fostering a spirit of innovation among employees. Perhaps because of his roots in the Congregational faith, Noyce insisted on completely ethical business practices at Intel. Of this achievement Tom Wolfe has written: "Noyce managed to create an ethical universe within an inherently amoral setting: the American business corporation in the second half of the twentieth century."


During the 1980s, Noyce turned to lobbying, urging Washington to take steps to protect the American computer industry from unfair foreign competition, especially from Japan, which was closing its market to American computer products while dumping its goods below cost in the United States. Noyce helped found the Semiconductor Industry Association and served as its first president. In 1988 he agreed to move to Austin Texas to head Semtech, a research consortium of fourteen semiconductor companies established to narrow the gap between the semiconductor manufacturing technology in the U.S.A. and Japan. He continued to work at forging partnerships between the government and the computer industry, activities that were controversial and of only limited success in his lifetime. By April 1990 he had begun to withdraw from running Semtech's day-to-day operations.


Robert Noyce won every major honor in his field, short of the Nobel Prize. He received the AEA Medal of Achievement in 1974, the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1978, the I.E.E. Faraday Medal in 1979, the National Medal of Science in 1980, and the National Medal of Technology in 1987. He was a co-recipient of the AFIPS Harry Goode Award for leadership in computer science, the Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Cledo Brunetti Award of the IEEE for inventing the integrated circuit, and the National Academy of Engineering's first Charles Stark Draper Prize. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1983 and the U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1989.

Robert Noyce married Elizabeth Bottomley in 1953. They had four children together, and were divorced in 1974. Later in 1974 Noyce married Ann Bowers. Active all his life, Noyce was an avid swimmer, skier, hang glider, and pilot. He died suddenly of a heart attack on June 3, 1990 at his home in Austin Texas.


Kehoe, Louise. "Natural Leader With a National Purpose." Financial Times (London), June 12, 1990.

Ladendorf, Kirk. "Electronics Legend Robert Noyce Dies." Austin American-Statesman, June 4, 1990.

Lydon, Jim, and Richard McCausland. "Industry Mourns Death Of Robert Noyce, 62." Electronic News, June 11, 1990.

Richards, Evelyn. "In Noyce's Passing, An Era Also Ends; Electronics Pioneer Symbolized A Swashbuckling, Innovative Age." Washington Post, June 5, 1990.

Sprackland, Teri. "Robert N. Noyce: 1927-1990." Electronic Business Buyer, June 25, 1990.

Wolfe, Tom. "The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce." Esquire, December 1983.

SEE ALSO: Intel; Moore, Gordon

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Robert Noyce

Robert Noyce

Robert Norton Noyce (1927-1990) coinvented the integrated circuit, an electronic component which is considered to be among the twentieth century's most significant technological developments.

The laptop computer, the ignition control in a modern automobile, the "brain" of a VCR that allows for its programming, and thousands of other computing devices all depend for their operation on the integrated circuit that Robert Noyce coinvented. He was not only a brilliant inventor, credited with more than a dozen patents for semiconductor devices and processes, but a forceful businessman who founded the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation and the Intel Corporation and who, at the time of his death, was president and CEO of Sematech.

Robert Norton Noyce was born December 12, 1927, in Burlington, Iowa, the third of four boys in the family. His parents were Ralph Noyce, a minister who worked for the Iowa Conference of Congregational Churches, and Harriet Norton Noyce. Growing up in a two-story church-owned house in Grinnell, a small town in central Iowa, Noyce was gifted in many areas, excelling in sports, music, and acting as well as academic work. He exhibited a talent for math and science while in high school and took the Grinnell college freshman physics course in his senior year. Noyce went on to receive his baccalaureate degree in physics from Grinnell, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1949. It was at Grinnell that he was introduced to the transistor (an electronic device that allows a small current to control a larger one in another location) by his mentor Grant Gale, head of Grinnell's physics department. Noyce was excited by the invention, seeing it as freeing electronics from the constraints of the bulky and inefficient vacuum tube. After he received his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954, Noyce—who had no interest in pure research—started working for Philco in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the company was making semiconductors (materials whose conductivity of an electrical current puts them midway between conductors and insulators).

After three years, Noyce became convinced Philco did not have as much interest in transistors as he did. By chance in 1956 he was asked by William Shockley, Nobel laureate and coinventor of the transistor, to come work for him in California. Excited by the opportunity to develop state-of the-art transistor technology, Noyce moved to Palo Alto, which is located in an area that came to be known as Silicon Valley (named for the silicon compounds used in the manufacture of computer chips). But Noyce was no happier with Shockley than he had been with Philco; both Shockley's management style and the direction of his work—which ignored transistors—were disappointing. In 1957 Noyce left with seven other Shockley engineers to form a new company, financed by Fairchild Camera and Instrument, to be called Fairchild Semiconductor. At age twenty-nine, Noyce was chosen as the new corporation's leader.

The first important development during the early years at Fairchild was the 1958 invention, by Jean Hoerni (an ex-Shockley scientist), of a process to protect the elements on a transistor from contaminants during manufacturing. This was called the planar process, and involved laying down a layer of silicon oxide over the transistor's elements. In 1959, after prodding from one of his patent attorneys to find more applications for the planar process, Noyce took the next step of putting several electronic components, such as resistors and transistors, on the same chip and layering them over with silicon oxide. Combining components in this fashion eliminated the need to wire individual transistors to each other and made possible tremendous reductions in the size of circuit components with a corresponding increase in the speed of their operation. The integrated circuit, or microchip as it became commonly known, had been born. More than one person, however, was working toward this invention at the same time. Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments had devised an integrated circuit the year before, but it had no commercial application. Nevertheless, both Kilby and Noyce are considered coinventors of the integrated circuit. In 1959 Noyce applied for a semiconductor integrated circuit patent using his process, which was awarded in 1961.

Both technological advances and competition in the new microchip industry increased rapidly. The number of transistors that could be put on a microchip grew from ten in 1964 to one thousand in 1969 to thirty-two thousand in 1975. (By 1993 up to 3.1 million transistors could be put on a 2.15-inch-square microprocessor chip.) The number of manufacturers eventually grew from two (Fairchild and Shockley) to dozens. During the 1960s Noyce's company was the leading producer of microchips, and by 1968 he was a millionaire. However, Noyce still felt constricted at Fairchild; he wanted more control and so—along with Gordon Moore (also a former Shockley employee)—he formed Intel in Santa Clara, California. Intel went to work making semiconductor memory, or data storage. Subsequently, Ted Hoff, an Intel scientist, invented the microprocessor and propelled Intel into the forefront of the industry. By 1982 Intel could claim to have pioneered three-quarters of the previous decade's advances in microtechnology.

Noyce's management style could be called "roll up your sleeves." He shunned fancy corporate cars, offices, and furnishings in favor of a less-structured, relaxed working environment in which everyone contributed and no one benefited from lavish perquisites. Becoming chairman of the board of Intel in 1974, he left the work of daily operations behind him, founding and later becoming chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Association. In 1980 Noyce was honored with the National Medal of Science and in 1983, the same year that Intel's sales reached one billion dollars, he was made a member of the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. He was dubbed the Mayor of Silicon Valley during the 1980s, not only for his scientific contributions but also for his role as a spokesperson for the industry. Noyce spent much of his later career working to improve the international competitiveness of American industry. Early on he recognized the strengths of foreign competitors in the electronics market and the corresponding weaknesses of domestic companies. In 1988 Noyce took charge of Sematech, a consortium of semiconductor manufacturers working together and with the United States government to increase U.S. competitiveness in the world marketplace.

Noyce was married twice. His first marriage to Elizabeth Bottomley ended in divorce (which he attributed to his intense involvement in his work); the couple had four children together. In 1975 he married Ann Bowers, who was then Intel's personnel director. Noyce enjoyed reading Hemingway, flying his own airplane, hang gliding, and scuba diving. He believed that microelectronics would continue to advance in complexity and sophistication well beyond its current state, leading to the question of what use society would make of the technology. Noyce died on June 3, 1990, of a sudden heart attack.

Further Reading

Bonner, M., W. L. Boyd, and J. A. Allen, Robert N. Noyce, 1927-1990, Sematech, 1990.

Encyclopedia of Computer Science, Van Nostrand, 1993, pp. 522-523.

Fifty Who Made the Difference, Villard Books, 1984, pp. 270-303.

Palfreman, Jon, and Doron Swade, The Dream Machine, BBC Books, 1991.

Slater, Robert, Portraits in Silicon, MIT Press, 1987. □

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Noyce, Robert Norton

Robert Norton Noyce (nois), 1927–90, American engineer, inventor, and entrepeneur, b. Burlington, Iowa.; grad. Grinnell College (B.A., 1949), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Ph.D., 1953). Early in his career he worked with William Shockley on specialized versions of the transistor. In 1957 Noyce and several other engineers founded Fairchild Semiconductor, where in 1959 he developed the integrated circuit (a feat duplicated independently a few months earlier by Jack Kilby). In 1968 he and Fairchild colleague Gordon Moore were among the cofounders of Intel Corp.; Noyce became president and chief executive officer. There he was instrumental in the development of the first microprocessor (1971) and various computer chips. Noyce was one of Silicon Valley's earliest multimillionaires.

See L. Berlin, The Man behind the Microchip (2005).

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