Journal of Theoretics

[From the October 23, 2000 WSJ]

Non-Academics Get Nobel Cold Shoulder

I wish to thank Michael Malone for his Oct. 17 editorial-page essay "The Missing Nobelist" (see below) about the snub that Robert Noyce and other non-academic (private sector) researchers have gotten and will continue to get from the Swedish Academy's Nobel Prize committee. What greater discovery has there been over the past 50 years other than the microprocessor that Mr. Noyce helped to develop?

Probably the greatest inventor of the past century is the likewise academically ignored Nikola Tesla, who invented the AC electric motor, the radio (not Marconi, as most believe), the electric turbine, and numerous other inventions that we would be lost without. He fought Thomas Edison over making AC the electrical standard, as Edison wanted the inefficient DC, which would have kept us from having the technological revolution we had this past century.

Not only are most Americans unaware of the contributions of such men, but so are most engineering students, who are not being taught about these great men and their discoveries. I and other "non-academic" researchers will continue to work in the private sector with the full realization that our contributions to science will likely be ignored. But we do so in the hope of advancing scientific knowledge and being able to practically implement our discoveries for the benefit of mankind.

Dr. James P. Siepmann
Oshkosh, Wis.

(Dr. Siepmann is founder and head of R&D at the privately held high-tech company LightTime, which is developing revolutionary high-speed timing technology.)


[From the October 17, 2000 WSJ]

Commentary

The Missing Nobelist

By Michael S. Malone, editor of Forbes ASAP.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- Move over Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Make a place Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges. The Swedish Academy has blown it again.

Last week, the Academy announced its newest laureates in physics. They were Herbert Kroemer and Zhores I. Alferov for their seminal work in telecommunications, and most important, Jack Kilby for his work as co-inventor of the integrated circuit in 1958.

[Robert Noyce]
Robert Noyce -- Silicon Valley pioneer

Here in Silicon Valley the news hit with a dull thud. That's because many of us knew, and many more admired, the missing figure in that announcement: the late Robert Noyce. Mr. Kilby graciously noted the loss: "I'm sorry he is not alive. I'm sure if he were, he would share in this prize."

Indeed. Noyce died prematurely in 1990, at age 62. But already he was recognized as one of the greatest Americans of his time. Not only did he co-invent the integrated circuit -- the defining invention of the postwar world and the heart of every personal computer, calculator, Walkman, television, VCR, automobile dashboard and modern appliance -- but, unlike Mr. Kilby, the one Noyce built, in silicon, was the model for all the billions that followed.

Noyce didn't stop there. Months before the integrated circuit, he had led a mutiny of young scientists at Shockley Transistor against their Nobel laureate boss and company founder, William Shockley. This group, the "Traitorous Eight," managed to find venture-capital investment (thereby helping to found that industry) and started Fairchild Semiconductor. Fairchild became a company of legend, the greatest amalgam of young engineering talent ever seen, and the seed firm of the modern Silicon Valley. Noyce was its leader, worshipped by the young men who would one day found most of the U.S. semiconductor industry.

In 1969, frustrated over parent company Fairchild Camera's unwillingness to award stock options to his troops, Noyce walked out. He was joined by another of the Traitorous Eight, Gordon Moore, and the two founded Intel Corp., today one of the world's most valuable and influential companies. Their first hire was Andy Grove, who as Noyce's successor became Time magazine's 1997 Man of the Year.

Noyce led Intel for nearly two decades. On his watch, a team invented the microprocessor, a direct descendent of his integrated circuit and a candidate for the most important product of the 20th century. By 1988, Noyce had become a statesman of the electronics industry and agreed to take over Sematech, the government-sponsored semiconductor research institute. He died of a heart attack in Austin during a morning swim. Silicon Valley mourned. The aging Fairchildren mourn still.

Even as a young Valley worker in the early 1970s, I heard talk that Noyce deserved the Nobel Prize. But I also was told that he would never get it. Why? Because he was a businessman and because his work had been commercial. The Swedish Academy would never stand for a dirty capitalist, especially a very, very rich one, getting the prize.

And so, as the Nobel Prize for literature went to obscure Marxist poets and passed over the great Borges (too conservative), and as the Nobel Prize in physics landed on the discoverers of various laboratory arcana, Noyce went on constructing a far greater revolution than Marx and his followers ever had. And he did it with extraordinary grace. Bob Noyce was everything wrong in a researcher and everything right in an entrepreneur. He smoked too much, drove and flew like a banshee and took terrifying risks as a skier. He had one helluva life. In Silicon Valley, all of us wanted to work for Dave Packard, but all of us wanted to be Bob Noyce.

Now he has been gone a decade. Mr. Kilby holds the laureate alone. So why did the Swedes suddenly decide to give an award for the integrated circuit now? Because Sweden has fallen in love with information technology; the country has one of the world's highest per capita usages of cellular phones and the Internet. Companies like Ericsson have grown so rich on electronics that the country has even started to warm to those nasty entrepreneurs. Government officials dream aloud that technology profits will help fund Sweden's tottering welfare state. Suddenly, the pioneers of the digital world are looking like heroes.

But it's too late for Bob Noyce. The Nobel he deserved would have sealed his reputation and kept his name alive. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I got a phone call from the writer Tom Wolfe. He was updating his famous, 14-year-old Esquire profile of Noyce. Tell me, he asked, how is Bob perceived these days in the Valley? I was sorry to tell him that Noyce was hardly remembered at all. A whole generation of dot-com kids have grown up never once having heard Robert Noyce's name.

And they are the worse for it.

 

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