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The Man behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley

Author(s):Berlin, Leslie
Reviewer(s):Maharajh, Rasigan

Published by EH.NET (November 2006)

Leslie Berlin, The Man behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ix + 402 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-516343-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Rasigan Maharajh, Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology.

Imagining a world without the advances and advantages offered by the combination of microelectronics, semiconductors and microprocessors into the digitally enhanced space we currently occupy is difficult, if not impossible. While we would readily subscribe to the view that our contemporary ‘brave new world’ is a virtual product of convergent information and communication technologies, very little published research has sought to convey an integrated picture of the evolution of this field.

Leslie Berlin, a Visiting Scholar at the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program of Stanford University, has written a compelling and detail-rich study of the famous inventor, entrepreneur and innovator: Robert Noyce. Primarily dependent on interviews with key players in the transistor, microelectronics and semiconductor sectors, this biography has already received positive responses from people familiar with Noyce, as well as academic, industrial and investment stakeholders and role-players.

Berlin’s attempts to portray Robert Noyce through elaborating upon a complex tapestry of anecdotes and primary recollections of actors of the period. The argument that emerges from her assembly of information is that Noyce is “one the most important innovators and entrepreneurs” of the high technology sector in contemporary times. The story that is therefore presented is actually three tales, which combine into an elegant single narrative.

The first story is a biography of Robert Noyce. His family history and early education tells us about growing up in the United States of America during the mid twentieth century. As such the influences of economic, political and social history are well reflected in describing Noyce’s youth and the choices available to him. The strong impact of organized religion is also reflected upon. While it is suggested that this waned towards secularity, insistence by Noyce upon rituals of marriage, his difficulties in contemplating divorce and other cultural norms seem to indicate an enduring influence. Berlin also provides us with insight into Noyce’s early childhood, academic training, the friendships he established with peers across his lifespan, his first and second marriages, and his relationships with his children.

The second story told is one of entrepreneurialism told as business history. Berlin provides us with an integrated and a somewhat linear description of the multiple business interests of Noyce. The latter comment is not intended as criticism, but is reflective of the value of hindsight in most historical writing. Included are the work he did with Philco, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories, Fairchild Semiconductor, NM Electronics, Integrated Electronics (INTEL) and SEMATECH. Berlin also covers some of the other businesses that Noyce contributed to through venture capital and advice.

The third story is a history of technology. Specifically the book covers the technical artefact: the integrated circuit, the microelectronics and semiconductor industry and their contextual location: Silicon Valley. The first part is captured through technical reviews, patents and laboratory notebooks. Through this survey we are able to recognize the evolution of the various components (sic) which we eventually witness transforming into the fundamental constituents of our current digital world. We are taken through research into technical aspects of this technology cluster ranging from the transistor to the integrated circuit through to the creation of the microprocessor. Again, with the value of retrospection one can discern the increasing levels of complexity and challenges these products generate in the process of producing them. From a technology management perspective, the role of serendipity and plain engineering prowess is also highlighted. The latter is of special interest as Berlin continuously emphasizes this aspect as a critical part of how Noyce invented, innovated and acted entrepreneurially: learning by doing and solving practical problems. With seventeen patents awarded to him and in collaboration with others, Noyce is clearly the poster-person of the technology, the industry and its geographic location.

This method of recognizing constraints, introducing novel materials, and transforming production processes is now well documented through various and multiple studies conducted by the community of scholars concerned with the study of innovation. Leslie Berlin augments and makes a tremendous contribution to this domain by her astute and abundant archival research. This is clearly evidenced in her nearly 130 author interviews, a bibliography including 115 published articles, 9 theses, newspaper reports, articles published by and about Noyce and his patents, videos, oral histories, memoirs and associated histories, congressional testimony and government documents and various websites now collected in a single volume. This collation, therefore, is also the most significant contribution to scholarship.

While this book maintains a quality and flow of narrative that is capable of weaving together the three discrete (and possible stand-alone) stories, it does not engage much into integrating how the subject of the study was himself influenced and affected by what was going on both in the U.S. and globally. The Cold War and Sputnik’s role in catalysing the research enterprise of the military-industrial complex are fleetingly referred to without a distinct feedback loop into how Robert Noyce himself made sense of the world around him. At the personal, the institutional and societal levels the reader may be forced to at best infer the correlation between events and how these shaped the personality of Noyce. The dramatic shift from a form of libertinism displayed early on in his management and organisational styles is contradicted by the lobbying role he would play for the Semiconductor Industrial Association and even at SEMATECH. Similar questions require further attention into the co-evolution of industry, academia and public sector funding that would sustain the phenomenon of Silicon Valley.

The scope of success for any further research into the evolution of this sectoral system of innovation is greatly enhanced by the primary archival collection of Leslie Berlin’s excellent book. This should encourage further research, especially with a more critical eye on the crucial questions of political economy and sociology which are not elaborated upon in this work.

Rasigan Maharajh is Chief Director of the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (ieri) at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa and an active member of the Global Network for the Economics of Learning, Innovation and Competence-building Systems (GLOBELICS).

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII