Chips and a lifelong passion
Gordon Moore of Intel has been improving silicon chip technology for 29 years - and he still has no plans to retire.
Tuesday 08 April 1997
Such a peaceful, reflective pastime is a world away from the frenetic industry with which he has been associated for the past 29 years. As chairman of the chip giant Intel, Moore has been in the driving seat of a company that has brought computing to the masses. Under his guidance, Intel has grown from scratch into an organisation with annual revenues in excess of $20bn.
Many expected the 68-year-old to withdraw from company life when he handed the reins to the current president and chief executive officer, Andy Grove, in 1987 - but not so. He continues to spend three days each week working in the company's offices, and travels regularly to attend meetings and conferences.
"I suppose if I wanted to do something else I could, but I can't really think of anything," he says. "We are changing a lot of the world and I am able to participate in it - that's very exciting."
Moore co-founded Intel with Robert Noyce in 1968. Serving initially as executive vice-president, he became president and CEO in 1975 and then chairman and CEO in 1979 - a position he retained until 1987.
During this time, Moore witnessed the birth and growth of the microchip - the device at the heart of every personal computer on the planet. From relatively simple beginnings, Intel's chips have grown in power and complexity to the point where they now contain around 4.5 million transistors and can perform millions of operations per second.
But for someone whose efforts helped to create the computers of today, Moore's entry into the chip industry happened almost by accident. He started out studying chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned a BSc. From there he progressed to the California Institute of Technology, where he was awarded a PhD in chemistry and physics. After that, an academic career appeared virtually certain.
"I started out in a scientific research career, but I found myself calculating the cost per word to the taxpayer of the articles I was producing, and wondered if anyone was actually reading them," Moore recalls. "So I figured I should get involved in something a little more practical.
"Quite by accident I caught up with Bill Shockley [of Bell Labs], who was setting up a semiconductor company. It sounded interesting, although I didn't know very much about it, as it was very early days in the industry. I got a start there and have really been following the evolution of the technology ever since."
On deciding that chip manufacturing was to be his business, Moore joined forces with Noyce, and Intel was born. In the subsequent years, the company grew almost as rapidly as the number of components on its chips. Observing this trend in 1965, Moore fashioned a law that has remained accurate ever since. Named after him, it states simply that the power of the microprocessor will double every two years.
Despite its now-proven accuracy, Moore wasn't sure about his law when it was first devised. "This was very early days and the most complex chip we had in the lab at that time had a total of about 60 components on it," he said. "This was just a few years after the first integrated circuit and I was trying to predict what was going to happen for the next 10 years - not an easy task."
At that time chips were doubling in complexity and power every year, so Moore extrapolated from 60 to 60,000 components on a single chip. "We have stayed amazingly close to that growth ever since, so I guess I was correct."
Looking into the future, Moore expects his law to continue to hold true. "I think about two or three generations of the technology, which is about a decade, is about as far ahead as you can really see. Beyond that it gets fairly fuzzy," he says.
The law's continuing integrity depends on two things: increasing the density of transistors on a chip, and increasing the surface area of the chip itself.
"I do, however, think there is the possibility that it [Moore's Law] may slow down a bit because we won't want to grow the chip size any more - not because we can't, but because the cost has to increase. So instead of doubling every two years it may start doubling every three years or so; but the underlying trend will still be there."
From a technical perspective, Moore is still as excited about chip technology as he was at the beginning. He enthusiastically follows every development and is impatient for the future. While some people predict that microprocessors will soon reach their performance limit, Moore disagrees.
"It has looked that way in the past, but as you get closer to what you think is the limit, that limit starts to recede," he says. "There will continue to be a tremendous amount of effort in the next few years, and the limit simply won't be there when we reach it. Eventually it will be the atomic nature of matter that will really be the limitation of how small we can go, but that won't happen for a while yet."
Moore admits that his preoccupation with chip technology means he has limited time to monitor the impact of these developments on the outside world. However, he is convinced that computer technology will continue to change the lives of everyone on the planet - and that Intel will continue to play a pivotal role.
"We are certainly microprocessor-centric, but we are looking out in all directions to see what we can do to accelerate the need for more powerful computers," he comments. "The market has to grow if we are going to continue to grow; we can't really continue just by growing market share."
As yet, Moore has no plans for retirement and will continue to involve himself in the activities of the company he has nurtured for almost 30 years. "I think I get more out of Intel than Intel gets out of me these days," he musesn
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