All Commentary
Friday, April 10, 2015

Profiles In Exceptionalism: Gordon Moore

I read something interesting the other day. The author of an article on ambitious business startup ideas taught me that my understanding of Moore’s Law was plain wrong.

Everyone thinks they understand Moore’s Law. My understanding was that computer processor clock speed will double every 18 months. Anyone paying attention to Circuit City ads in the late 1990s and early 2000s would have noticed this interpretation was fairly on target. We had 200 megahertz processors followed soon by 400 megahertz processors, and breached the gigahertz ceiling soon thereafter.

But Moore’s Law isn’t really about processor speed. It’s actually about circuit density. In other words, it posits that scientists will double the density of circuits on silicon wafers every year and a half. This is playing out now dual- and quad-core processors in our PCs and cell phones. When we go electronics shopping today, we hear about how many cores a device has instead of how many hertz. Apparently, we’ve reached a limit (for now) on clock speed, and that our only hope for faster computing is fitting more and more processors into our devices.

Moore’s Law was devised by and eventually named after engineer and entrepreneur Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel and a pioneer of the digital revolution.

Moore grew up in California, earning degrees in chemistry and physics from UC Berkeley and Caltech. Despite being highly educated in science, the story goes he didn’t even know what a semiconductor (the building block of computer processors) was until he began his first job outside of academia at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.

At Shockley, Moore met his future partner Robert Noyce. They left to found Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957, but, following frustration over the pace of progress, they packed up again to begin a new business.

In July of 1968, Moore and Noyce invested $250,000 each in their second venture together, raising an additional $2.5 million from others. They named their new company Intel, short for Integrated Electronics.

Although they had intended to develop better memory chips, Moore, Noyce and their team soon invented the microprocessor, the brain of modern computers.

Moore was a scientist by training and a manager by necessity. He made a decision at Intel to place the product development department on the manufacturing floor to streamline the process between R&D and production.

He discussed this in an interview with Charlie Rose:

So when we set up Intel, very specifically we did not set up a separate laboratory. We told the development people to do their work right in the production facility. We’d take the inefficienty in production in trade for being able to have the technology already existing in manufacturing when it was developed. So we eliminated a step, essentially.

Intel’s products and strategies catapulted the company to the top of the computer industry and pioneered a new and extremely valuable industry: personal computing.

Before the microprocessor, computers were made of tubes that accepted instructions with punchcards. Moore once explained the pre-digital era by joking, “Computers were in glass rooms tended to by a corps of monks that knew how to do the proper incantations.”

Today we have “phones” in our pockets with more computing power than the space shuttle. 

Moore was profiled along with other tech industry titans in a documentary film last year entitled Something Ventured. Moore appears in the trailer for the film.

Moore is now retired and has put his efforts into conservation, education, and philanthropy. He and his wife made the largest single gift to a university when they gave $600 million to Caltech in 2001.

In case you’re wondering how Moore ranks Moore’s Law among his achievements, he has called it “a lucky guess that got a lot more publicity than it deserved.”

Perhaps, but guesses can lead to important breakthroughs. For his many good guesses and hard work in ushering humanity into the digital age, Gordon Moore is an exceptional individual.

  • Richard N. Lorenc is Chief Growth Officer of Iron Light, an award-winning strategic marketing firm specializing in helping purpose-driven brands change the world. He served at FEE from April 2013-November 2021, most recently as FEE's Executive Vice President.