Gordon Moore, computer-chip pioneer who co-founded Intel and devised ‘Moore’s Law’ – obituary
Gordon Moore, who has died aged 94, was the co-founder of Intel Corporation, the company which led a revolution in microprocessing; he became known for “Moore’s Law”, which states that computer processing power will double every two years.
By the late 1950s transistors had become commonplace in electronics but there was a limit to how small they could be made since they had to be connected manually by wires to other circuit components. In January 1959 Robert Noyce, Moore’s colleague at the small Fairchild Semiconductor start-up company, realised that a whole circuit could be made on a single silicon chip. That spring, Fairchild began a push to build what they called “unitary circuits”, and in 1961 they patented the idea.
Surprisingly it took a while to catch on. In 1965 Moore, a chemist and physicist, was given the job of writing an article for Electronics magazine. Reviewing the first few years of unitary circuits, he noticed that the number of components it was possible to fit on a single chip kept doubling every year (by 1965 they had managed to fit 60 components on one chip).
Extrapolating the line on a graph, he calculated that in the next 10 years the number of components on a chip would increase to 60,000, and because of that the chip would be the future of microelectronics.
He also predicted that it would be cheap. In his article Moore conjured up a future in which integrated circuits would lead to such “wonders” as home computers, automated controls for cars and what he called “personal portable communications equipment”. In effect he described a world in which people would use iPhones and iPads to communicate with colleagues and friends, store information and grab data at will from a vast decentralised network.
In 1968 Moore and Noyce formed Intel (Integrated Electronics) in Mountain View, California (they had originally wanted to name it “Moore Noyce”, before realising the name might be considered unsuitable for an electronics company). Within three years the company had made a breakthrough with the 4004, the first commercially available microprocessor.
Moore then saw that there might be commercial opportunities in putting computer memory or data storage on microchips. In 1970, with Andy Grove, a chemical engineer who would later run the company, Moore led Intel when it came out with the industry’s first major hit: low-cost memory on a chip.
In the 1970s Intel dominated the memory business, but by 1983 competition from Japanese semiconductor manufacturers had dramatically reduced profit margins. As a result the company embarked on a dramatic change of direction, closing down its memory business and beefing up its microprocessor operations.
In the 1970s Intel microprocessors – the brains of a computer – could be found controlling lifts, traffic lights, garage door openers and office printers, but Moore and Grove saw new opportunities emerging in the sudden success of IBM’s personal computer.
Buoyed by its position as microprocessor supplier to IBM and IBM’s competitors, Intel embarked on a 10-year period of expansion as the main supplier of hardware to the personal computer industry. By the end of the decade, and after a successful Intel Inside marketing campaign, its line of Pentium processors had become a household name. “There were no personal computers before Intel drove the microprocessor to the level it’s achieved,” Microsoft’s chairman Bill Gates noted in 2011.
Moore did not expect his “Law” to be especially accurate; indeed, he once said that he wanted his legacy to be “anything but Moore’s Law” – and in 1975 he revised his theory to doubling computer processing power every two years (as opposed to every year). For many years it seemed that Moore’s Law would continue to hold true, though in recent years a slowing in the pace of change has led some to suggest that it is now obsolete.
The electronics website Power and Beyond, however, concludes that “While it’s true that chip densities are no longer doubling every two years (thus, Moore’s Law isn’t happening any more by its strictest definition), Moore’s Law is still delivering exponential improvements, albeit at a slower pace. The trend is very much still here.”
Gordon Earle Moore was born on January 3 1929 in San Francisco and grew up in nearby Pescadero. He took a degree in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950, followed by a PhD in Physical Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1954. He continued to do postdoctoral research at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University until 1956.
He then joined the Nobel Prize-winner William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, at the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory division of Beckman Instruments, as one of a team of bright young scientists (another being Robert Noyce) tasked with developing new semiconductor devices.
But Shockley was a better scientist than he was a manager. By 1957 the working atmosphere had become so intolerable that Moore, Noyce and six others (who became known as the “traitorous eight”) resigned and, in collaboration with the inventor and entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild, formed Fairchild Semiconductor, which soon grew into a leader of the semiconductor industry and an incubator of much of the talent which gave rise to Silicon Valley.
After serving as executive vice president during Intel’s early years, Moore became president and chief executive in 1975, holding the post until he was elected chairman and chief executive in 1979. He remained chief executive until 1987 and was named chairman emeritus in 1997.
Moore remained involved with Intel until 2001, when he turned his attention to philanthropic activities. In 1986 he and his wife Betty had founded the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation with an endowment of $20 million, to which he added billions more over the years. The foundation supports causes ranging from ocean conservation and research to wildlife conservation and astronomy.
In 1997 Moore had met Stephen Hawking at a conference, and in 2011, by which time the physicist’s ability to use his computerised speech generator was deteriorating due to the degradation of a nerve in his hand, he wrote to Moore asking for help. Moore set a team of engineers to work, and they came up with a new system that Hawking said was “a big improvement”.
In 2001 Moore and his wife donated $600 million to Caltech, the largest gift ever made to an institution of higher education, to keep the university at the forefront of research and technology. In 2007 he donated a further $200 million to Caltech and the University of California for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the world’s largest optical telescope. In Britain they gave $7.5 million towards the building of a new library for the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge.
Moore, who at the time of his death was reckoned by Forbes to be worth $7.2 billion, was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Royal Society of Engineering. He was a recipient of the US National Medal of Technology in 1990 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. In 2009 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Gordon Moore married, in 1950, Betty Whitaker, who survives him with their two sons.
Gordon Moore, born January 3 1929, died March 24 2023