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Robert Norton Noyce

Robert Norton Noyce

1927-1990

American Physicist

Although Jack St. Clair Kilby (1923- ) built the world's first integrated circuit, or microchip, in 1958, Robert N. Noyce built the first practical microchip six months later. Whereas Kilby's chip had required connecting wires, Noyce used a flat transistor to replace those wires and made conducting channels printed directly on the surface of the chip. The channels were possible because Noyce had also improved on the material used: instead of germanium, as in Kilby's chip, he used silicon. Noyce later cofounded Intel Corporation.

Born on December 12, 1927, in Burlington, Iowa, Noyce was the son of a minister. He attended Grinnell College, where in 1948 he had his first encounter with a newly developed technological marvel, the transistor. Noyce later said he knew from that first moment that the transistor would change the face of electronics—but he, too, was destined to affect tremendous changes through the use of the transistor in computing.

Noyce earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics from Grinnell in 1949, and in 1953 received his Ph.D. in physical electronics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Soon afterward he went to work for the Philco Corporation as a researcher, and there he remained until 1956. In the latter year William Bradford Shockley (1910-1989) recruited him to work at his new Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. However, Shockley—another computing pioneer—had a managerial style that made him difficult to get along with, and within a year Noyce and seven others left the company to form Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation in Mountain View, California.

In early 1959 Noyce was working as research director for Fairchild, and in this capacity it was his responsibility to oversee the company's silicon chip development. Using a new chemical etching process, he was able to print transistors on the silicon wafers, which eliminated expensive wiring costs and made the chips operate much faster as well. On April 25, 1960, the U.S. Patent Office granted him a patent for a "Semi-conductor Device-and-Lead Structure." These new chips, for which both Noyce and Kilby deserve credit, ended the dominance of the slow, ungainly vacuum tubes that had once powered computer processing, and inaugurated the modern electronic computing revolution.

In 1968 Noyce and Gordon Moore founded Intel, which soon developed a memory chip that made it a leader in the field. By 1974 the company was so successful that Noyce turned his attention from managing it to dealing with larger industry concerns; in the latter capacity he headed up Sematech, a consortium designed to deal with foreign competition.

In 1980 President Jimmy Carter awarded Noyce the National Medal of Science, and in 1987 he received the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan. Grinnell College named its computer center in Noyce's honor in 1984, and in 1990 he received the Charles Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering. Noyce died on June 3, 1990.

JUDSON KNIGHT

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