THE MAN BEHIND THE MICROCHIP
Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley
By Leslie Berlin
Oxford Univ. 402 pp. $30
THE SILICON EYE
By George Gilder
Norton. 318 pp. $22.95
During those giddy 1990s, every region seemed to claim to have the next silicon boomtown. Israel had Silicon Wadi. New York had Silicon Alley. Quebec chimed in with Silicon Alley North. But these communities could never compete with the mother of them all: Silicon Valley. That stretch of mirrored buildings near San Francisco Bay was like a modern-day mash-up of the Wild West, Oz and Area 51. With enough brains and caffeine, a pencil-necked kid could arrive a lowly nerd and leave a gazillionaire geek -- at least on paper. Even after the crash, as the other Silicon burgs retracted their shingles, the Valley's gold glittered for anyone with a dream and a pan.
Many authors have mined the human drama lurking inside those tchotchke-filled cubicles. Two new approaches belong on opposite ends of the shelf. Leslie Berlin's exhaustively researched biography "The Man Behind the Microchip" reminds us of the Valley's origins; George Gilder's jazzy riff "The Silicon Eye" suggests where it might be going.
The microchip man in Berlin's story is the late Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel and co-inventor of the integrated circuit that is the essential component of the digital age. Berlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, the neighborhood school, aims to place Noyce (as her subtitle suggests) squarely alongside the "invention of Silicon Valley."
Berlin unleashes the chorus of praise early. The San Jose Mercury News, the local paper, anoints Noyce as the town's Edison and Ford. Isaac Asimov says the creation of the integrated circuit is "the most important moment since man emerged as a life form." Billionaire investor Warren Buffet declares that "everybody liked Bob." By the time Berlin steps in to assure us that Noyce was "not a superhero," as apparently some former comic-book nerds believe, it feels strained. We can already see him flying through the Valley in a cape.
In fact, as Berlin eventually gets around to explaining, Noyce is less compelling as a hero than as a dynamically flawed man. He embodies what remains the rather sad refrain of many swashbucklers in the Valley: a technologist who achieves success but alienates himself from the thrill of invention and love of family.
Noyce grew up a preacher's son with an adventurer's heart and an engineer's mind. He built telescopes for fun, chased girls and joined a ragtag group of wunderkinder at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he got a job call from William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, Noyce caught his first breath of the Valley's mind-altering ether. "It was like picking up the phone and talking to God," he recalled. Despite having won a Nobel Prize, Shockley proved to be quite flawed. An amateur magician and, Berlin suggests, a vituperative nut, he tested prospective employees for their "mental temperatures" to find the hottest minds and humiliated others after they got in. Noyce, blessed with frequent foresight, learned the ropes, then wisely got out and joined the ensuing semiconductor rush. Before long, the olive groves and walnut trees of the Valley were being paved over, and Noyce was on the on ramp for the information superhighway. And this was still the 1960s.
By discovering a way to pack a large number of circuits on a silicon-swathed wafer, Noyce and his co-inventors put the heart -- and soul -- into a new generation of machines. Along with Gordon Moore, another Shockley survivor, Noyce co-founded Intel in 1968. The company's microprocessors became the Valley's gold, ushering in the computer age.
Berlin doles out the technical details, sometimes too thickly, along the way. The book is at its best when connecting Noyce's adventure with the industry and culture booming around him. The success went to his head, and he was soon chain-smoking and brashly cheating on his wife. Despite his "disdain for hierarchy," as Berlin calls it, Noyce floated readily to the top, far from the distant front lines of engineering that he once swore by. Though slow going at times, Berlin's thoughtful and thorough biography is at once a celebratory and a cautionary tale.
Though some of the same "characters" pop up in "The Silicon Eye," George Gilder is less concerned with making heroes than with ushering in the Valley's staggering new wave. The silicon in this contemporary tale is the magic inside the imagers of Foveon, a company that, as Gilder writes, "can do for the camera what Intel did for the computer: Reduce it to a chip and make it ubiquitous." Gilder doesn't have to work hard to convince us that this is a big deal. The Foveon X3, now a reality, is a high-resolution imager that costs less than a buck to make (silicon, after all, is made from sand). Instead of relying upon "digital guesswork," as Gilder puts it, the X3 uses "the silicon itself -- the microchip -- as a kind of permanent film, like the retina."Able to capture still and moving images, the X3 has profound implications for how machines -- from cell phones to computers -- will look at the world.
A best-selling author, Gilder knows a good theme when he strikes upon one -- and, as Foveon engineers struggle to divine the mysteries of the human eye, the book trips out like a 21st-century version of "Fantastic Voyage." In one scene, Gilder recounts the story of a Foveon prodigy who gobbled marijuana brownies in a Trans Am, then counted the photons as they reached her eyes. "The experience strengthened her conviction that vision is an achievement of an entire mind -- that it reached beyond the retinal models she was building," Gilder writes. "The retina could not do it alone. She would have to explore the farthest shores of consciousness itself."
At times, Gilder's exuberant ride speeds off the tracks. We get references to astrophysics, pinball and 19th-century Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton -- all in the space of two zippy paragraphs. It would have been nice if he had pulled his own camera back a bit more often to give readers a better picture of this technology's implications; for example, privacy issues, knocked off in a few lines, deserve more consideration.
But as the scientists get closer to replicating the retina, the thrill becomes increasingly infectious. It's proof that the spell of the Valley, after decades of booms and busts, is alive and well.