MarketWatch First Take: Chip legend Gordon Moore leaves behind a Silicon Valley looking for its next big thing
Gordon Moore, a founding father of Silicon Valley whose work in the chip industry catalyzed computing, died Friday at 94, with his passing marking the further end of a golden era for the technology industry.
co-founder who played an integral role in several of the earliest semiconductor companies, he is perhaps best known for coming up with Moore’s Law, a prediction that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every year. This ultimately predicted how fast computing would evolve.
But Moore should just as equally be recognized for helping transform Silicon Valley from an agricultural economy into a cradle of technological innovation.
When Moore dared to leave a job at Shockley Semiconductor in 1957 with a group of seven other semiconductor pioneers, the Santa Clara Valley was known as the Valley of the Hearts Delight, where fruit orchards were the economic engine, and there were no venture capitalists or startup companies.
Moore was instrumental in three of the earliest companies to experiment with and commercialize integrated circuits and the first semiconductors that helped give Silicon Valley its name. After leaving Shockley, he went on to co-found Fairchild Semiconductor, where along with Robert Noyce, he played a key role in the first commercial production of silicon transistors and later the world’s first commercially viable integrated circuits.
It was a daring move to leave Shockley, the first semiconductor company in the valley, but Moore and the others, often referred to as the “Traitorous Eight,” had a vision to continue making silicon transistors, while Shockley was distracted with a more complicated, four-layer diode device.
“This was the first company to spin off engineers starting something new,” Moore told MarketWatch in a 2011 interview, when he and three other living Fairchild alums were being feted at the California Historical Society in San Francisco to receive the “Legends of California Award.”
In 1968, Moore and Noyce left Fairchild and co-founded Intel Corp.
quickly adding chip-industry legend Andy Grove to their roster. After some early fits and starts, including abandoning memory chips, one of its first businesses, Intel would go on to become the largest semiconductor maker in the world as the developer of core microprocessors for personal computers.
Compared with the two more outspoken Intel legends, Noyce and Grove, Moore was a quieter, more unassuming leader. He finally was the subject of a 500-page biography that came out in 2015, called “Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary,” by authors Arnold Thackray, David Brock and Rachel Jones.
He told his biographers that he was the “low-key link in the middle” between those big personalities.
“It is impossible to imagine the world we live in today, with computing so essential to our lives, without the contributions of Gordon Moore,” Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s current chief executive, said in a statement. “He will always be an inspiration to our Intel family and his thinking at the core of our innovation culture.”
Moore once held Gelsinger’s position, serving as the company’s second CEO from 1979 through 1987. He also chaired the chip giant’s board for 18 years.
See more: Intel co-founder and digital-era pioneer Gordon Moore dies at 94
Beyond making contributions to Intel, he helped spur innovation in Silicon Valley more broadly with his Moore’s Law prediction that become the guiding light for the semiconductor industry. This concept evolved out of a 1965 article that Moore wrote in Electronics magazine, though a decade later he revised the prediction to say the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years, not every year.
Moore’s thinking with Moore’s Law proved to be correct, and helped predict how quickly and cheaply computing power would evolve. As computers have gotten more powerful, cheaper and smaller, this evolution led to the development of smartphones, smartwatches and other gadgets now essential to everyday life.
But as transistors have become infinitesimally smaller and the laws of physics have been tough to battle, some in the semiconductor industry have proclaimed the end of Moore’s Law and have been seeking other ways to boost computing power.
“At the core of computing today, the fundamental dynamic at work is, of course, influenced by one of the most important technology drivers in the history of any industry, Moore’s Law, and has fundamentally come to a very significant slowdown,” Nvidia
Chief Executive Jensen Huang said earlier this week at the company’s GTC conference. “You could argue…Moore’s Law has ended.”
Intel itself is also at a crossroads, having surrendered its leadership edge in the chip industry with a series of operational miscues. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd.
not Intel, is now the largest semiconductor maker based on revenue, while Intel’s rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
once an industry also-ran, has been eagerly eating into its share of the market for chips that go into PCs and data-center servers.
And then there is Silicon Valley itself. The tech hub is going through gut-wrenching change, with unprecedented layoffs at some of its most successful companies including Alphabet Inc.
and Meta Platforms Inc.
The recent collapse of the startup-friendly Silicon Valley Bank further threatens the innovative engine of the region.
Moore’s death Friday signals yet another ending for this most storied home of the technology industry.