Gordon Moore, the lawmaker: The Intel cofounder who foresaw and then made the future
Gordon Moore, a co-founder of the Intel corporation and the formulator of the eponymous law which describes the ever-growing power of computers and microchips, has died. He was 94. Without his insights and vision, the world would be a very different place.
Like so many others enthralled by the early days of space exploration and the first manned launches from Cape Kennedy (now known as Cape Canaveral), this writer took a tour about 25 years ago of the launching pads and the command block house for the early Atlas-Mercury missions.
Entering the historic site of the carefully preserved command centre was a revelation. The instrumentation looked like it had been cobbled together from surplus military gear left over from World War 2 – the circular oscilloscopes and dials would have been right at home on the set of an old sci-fi movie, circa 1950.
Or, perhaps, it looked even more like a very ambitious and expansive high school science fair project, assembled from parts scrounged from the odd bits bins in an electronic hobbyist shop.
Behind the facades of those dials and instrumentation, there would have been banks of vacuum tubes and valves – but no silicon microchips or semiconductors. Those were the products Gordon Moore’s Intel Corporation would come to lead the world in developing and making.
Back on that space centre tour, then, guides enjoyed telling visitors how a single home PC had more – much more – computing power than the entirety of the stuff in the block house. That was a quarter century ago. Now, I suspect, they’ll ask someone to take out a smartphone and the guide will compare the phone’s power with the entire room’s capabilities.
Back when I was at university – even before those Mercury and Gemini launches led to the successful Apollo Moon landings – one professor, someone I had gotten to know in his capacity as a supporter of anti-Vietnam War protests, called me to his office to show off his newest acquisition: a then-state-of-the-art, stand-alone computer.
This monster was about the size of a commercial restaurant oven and stove plus a desk bolted to the front of it, and it had all the lights and switches one could imagine for such a beast. But it was a vast improvement in speed and capabilities – and a real decrease in the mass and footprint – over the mainframe computers in general use on so many campuses and major government and business institutions.
This new machine was delivered and installed in my professor friend’s office around the time Gordon Moore and his entrepreneur partners were launching their new company, the firm that became the technology behemoth we now know as Intel.
Moore is probably best known as the formulator of what is called Moore’s Law and its corollaries. Most people, however, are probably less aware of his pivotal role in establishing one of the core companies that have given life to what we now call “Silicon Valley”.
Without Intel, Moore and his colleagues, it is possible that it would have taken much longer for the successful development of silicon as a bedrock substance for the entire world’s electronic high-tech universe.
Instead, most of us might still be relying on computers the size of a young adult hippopotamus rather than on something that can be conveniently folded up and put into our slimline briefcase or backpack, or even in a shirt or jacket pocket.
In a moment of real inspiration, Moore and his colleagues determined that integrated semiconductor chips – made from the easy-to-obtain element silicon (aka beach sand) – were the future, rather than all those laboriously wired-together transistors, resistors, capacitors and all the rest. And so they have become.
Moore’s Law is the idea that the number (and capacity) of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. Accordingly, the law is an observation and projection of a historical trend. It should not, however, be mistaken for one of those fundamental physical laws that describe gravity, electricity or the inner workings of the quantum model, or other fundamental forces.
Instead, it describes an empirical relationship that is linked to gains from experience in production. Nevertheless, Moore’s prediction has been used throughout the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development.
Advancements in digital electronics, such as the reduction in quality-adjusted microprocessor prices, the increase in memory capacity (RAM and flash), the improvement of sensors, and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras, are all strongly linked to Moore’s Law. These ongoing changes in digital electronics have been a driving force of technological and social change, productivity and economic growth.
Describing Moore’s now-famous law in another way, Reuters notes:
“In an article he wrote in 1965, Moore observed that, thanks to improvements in technology, the number of transistors on microchips had roughly doubled every year since integrated circuits were invented a few years before. [And the computing power would continue to grow exponentially.]
“His prediction that the trend would continue became known as ‘Moore’s Law’ and, later amended to every two years, it helped push Intel and rival chipmakers to aggressively target their research and development resources to make sure that rule of thumb came true.
“‘Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment,’ Moore wrote in his paper, two decades before the PC revolution and more than 40 years before Apple launched the iPhone.”
Interestingly, Moore confessed to Forbes magazine that he had not personally obtained a PC for his own use until the late 1980s.
Despite his prescience and despite the fact that by the 1970s, Intel’s 4000 series “computer on a chip” had begun the revolution in personal computers, Intel itself passed on manufacturing PCs, a choice Moore partly blamed on his own shortsightedness.
As he said later: “Long before Apple, one of our engineers came to me with the suggestion that Intel ought to build a computer for the home, and I asked him, ‘What the heck would anyone want a computer for in his home?’.” Just imagine what kind of company Intel would have become if they had followed through on that idea.
Moore died on Friday, 24 March, in Hawaii, aged 94. He had retired as a man whose wealth was estimated at about $7.2-billion, but he continued to live relatively modestly despite his immense wealth.
Two decades earlier, he and his wife endowed a foundation, funding it with $5-billion worth of Intel stock, or more than 150 million shares of Intel stock.
The foundation has focused on environmental and climate issues such as the Amazon Basin and the preservation of salmon species in the US, Canada and Russia.
Moore also personally donated $600-million to the California Institute of Technology, the largest single gift to an institution of higher learning up to that time, to help his alma mater stay at the forefront of science and technology research. He also gave funds for research efforts in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, or Seti.
Among other honours, Moore received a Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, in 2002.
In his personal style, he preferred comfortable, well-worn, casual shirts and chino trousers rather than the bespoke suits that might clothe one of the leading figures of a major global economic sector. Moore was also a long-time sport fishing enthusiast, travelling around the world in pursuit of that passion.
Following Moore’s predictive vision, microchips have inexorably continued to become increasingly powerful, efficient and less expensive to purchase for computer and device makers. So far, at least, they continue to grow in their capabilities and speed at an exponential rate, as he predicted.
This revolution in computing power, in turn, has helped drive the globe’s technological progress for the past 50 years, as these chips now help run nearly everything we touch and use.
This development has underlain the era of personal computers and other devices; it has powered the internet; and it has made possible a roster of such familiar Silicon Valley giants as Apple, Facebook and Google.
The Intel company’s efforts eventually put Intel processors in more than 80% of the world’s PCs by the late 1990s.
In thinking about the world he and his company helped birth, Moore had said in a 2005 interview: “It sure is nice to be at the right place at the right time. I was very fortunate to get into the semiconductor industry in its infancy. And I had an opportunity to grow from the time where we couldn’t make a single silicon transistor to the time where we put 1.7 billion of them on one chip! It’s been a phenomenal ride.”
Such chips were probably not even a pipe dream for the engineers in that blockhouse back at Cape Kennedy, when those Mercury flights left on their early voyages.
Rate of change
In recent years, some doubters, such as Intel rivals Nvidia Corp, have argued Moore’s Law no longer really holds true – or shortly will not – as improvements in chip manufacturing are slowing down. (Of course, we have yet to even see the first real-world applications of the newest kid on the block, quantum computing, and that may drive Moore’s prediction forward on steroids. Similarly, we will park discussion about the possibilities when or if computing and human neural nets actually combine.)
Back in the present, current Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger argues that regardless of manufacturing problems that have driven Intel to lose market share, Moore’s Law remains valid as a corporate guide.
Accordingly, Intel is investing billions in a turnaround effort to regain market share. And Moore’s Law remains popular with many Silicon Valley folks, still.
“Any business doing rational, multi-year planning has to assume this rate of change or else get steamrolled,” said Harry Saal, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
In January this year, the financial and investing advice company Motley Fool judged that Intel, in its business choices, had “subsequently struggled to manufacture smaller and denser chips, and it eventually fell behind TSMC [the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] in the process race in 2020… For now, TSMC – and its top clients like AMD [Advanced Micro Devices] and Apple – remain at least two chip generations (in terms of node size and transistor density) ahead of Intel in the process race.”
(For geopolitical strategists, the fact of TSMC’s home base being on the island of Taiwan helps in an understanding of a growing urgency of arguments made by Beijing for reuniting Taiwan with China.)
On hearing of Moore’s passing, Morris Chang, founder of TSMC, now the world’s largest contract chipmaker and a major global rival to Intel, said Moore had been a great and respected friend for more than six decades.
“With Gordon gone, almost all of my first generation semiconductor colleagues are gone,” Chang told reporters.
Moore was a San Francisco native who earned a PhD in chemistry and physics in 1954 at the California Institute of Technology and soon went to work at the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (William Shockley had been central in the development of the transistor and had gained a Nobel Prize for that work). There, Moore met his future Intel cofounder, Robert Noyce.
The two men became part of a group dubbed the “traitorous eight” when they left Shockley’s lab in 1957 to launch Fairchild Semiconductor. Eleven years later, Moore and Noyce left that company to start up their new memory chip company, which soon became Intel, an abbreviation of its original name, Integrated Electronics.
The two men’s first hire was yet another Fairchild colleague, Andy Grove, the man who led Intel through its explosive growth period in the 1980s and 1990s.
Moore once told Fortune magazine he thought he was an “accidental entrepreneur” who had had no deep urges to start a company.
Together with Noyce and Grove, he created a powerhouse. Noyce had engineering theories about how to solve chip manufacturing problems, whereas Moore was the one who spent his time refining Noyce’s plans, bench-testing things. Grove, in turn, became the company’s operations and management expert.
Under their leadership, Intel led the way in creating the microprocessors that opened the door for the PC revolution and all that followed from that. Moore served as executive president of Intel until 1975. He was CEO and chair from 1979 to 1987. He remained chair until 1997. DM