Robert Noyce


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(1927–1990) American physicist

Noyce was the son of a congregational minister from Denmark, Iowa. He was educated at Grinnell College, Iowa, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he obtained his PhD in 1953. After working briefly for Philco, Philadelphia, Noyce moved to Mountain View, California, to work for William Shockley, coinventor of the transistor, at his Semiconductor Laboratory. But Shockley was not an easy man to work for; nor did Noyce trust his commercial judgment. Consequently, Noyce and a number of colleagues, the ‘traitorous eight’ according to Shockley, decided to set up in business themselves. Financed by the Fairchild Corporation of New York, Noyce and his associates set up Fairchild Semiconductor in the Santa Clara Valley, fifty miles south of San Francisco, a site better known today as ‘Silicon Valley’.

The first major success was the integrated circuit, the foundation of the modern electronics industry. Noyce filed his patent in April 1959, some six weeks after a similar patent had been filed by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments. Although Noyce's design was more advanced, priority seemed to lie with Kilby. Yet in 1968 the Supreme Court awarded all rights to Noyce and Fairchild on the grounds that Kilby's patent application lacked sufficient clarity.

Whereas Kilby's circuit had used the silicon mesa transistor, Noyce opted for a planar model. Unlike the mesa, Noyce's model had no raised parts to attract contaminants and was more easily protected by a layer of silicon dioxide. Parts were no longer connected by wires but by evaporating the aluminum wires onto the insulating surface. As an extra bonus it also proved much easier to mass-produce planar transistors.

At this point Noyce was able to sell back to Fairchild his initial investment of $500 for $250,000. He went on in 1968 to found Intel (Integrated Electronics). It gained an early success with the production of a one-kilobyte RAM chip. Further improvements were quickly made and, with the 1973 launch of a 4K RAM chip, sales soared above $60 million. Intel's success rapidly made Noyce one of Silicon Valley's first multimillionaires; it continued with the production of the 486 chip in 1989 and the 60 MHz Pentium chip in 1993.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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