Moore’s Law proved a remarkably accurate observation about how quickly engineers would create advances in digital technology.
By guest authors Asa Fitch and Don Clark from the Wall Street Journal.
March 24, 2023
Gordon Moore, the electronics pioneer who co-founded Intel Corp. and whose groundbreaking theories defined the tempo of innovation in semiconductors, has died at the age of 94.
A 1965 article by Mr. Moore published in the trade journal Electronics predicted the pace of miniaturisation in computer chips and anticipated the development of home computers, smart wristwatches, automatic controls for cars and other inventions as electronic components etched on squares of silicon become smaller, faster and cheaper. Moore’s Law, as his prediction became known, proved a remarkably accurate observation about how quickly engineers would create advances in digital technology that have led to countless fixtures of modern life.
The soft-spoken engineer and his colleagues at Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel also inspired many other engineers to form tech spinoffs and startups, setting a pattern that would enrich many entrepreneurs and investors. Mr. Moore also encouraged philanthropy, using his Intel shares to endow a foundation that managed more than $9 billion in assets and had disbursed more than $5 billion since its founding.
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Technology, Mr. Moore was the last survivor of a leadership troika at Intel, which remains the dominant supplier of calculating engines for computers. Where Intel co-founder Robert Noyce became an industry statesman and Andy Grove a management guru, the unassuming Mr. Moore seemed less concerned with business leadership than with creating a company culture that exalted engineers and innovation.
“I define myself as the accidental entrepreneur,” Mr. Moore told Fortune in a 2012 interview.
But Mr. Moore proved he could manage, both during his time at Fairchild as well as during a 12-year stint that was the longest of any Intel chief executive.
“He would challenge you, but he would help you at the same time,” recalled Pierre Lamond, a venture capitalist who worked for Mr. Moore at Fairchild. “He was a really great teacher.”
At Intel, Mr. Moore calmly applied logic and objective measures to settle tough technical and financial issues.
In his landmark paper, Mr. Moore wrote that the number of transistors and other components on a typical chip would double every year. In 1975, he adjusted the formula to every two years. Carver Mead, a longtime engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and a friend of Mr. Moore, coined the phrase by which Mr. Moore’s prediction came to be widely known.
The law’s implications—and impact—were momentous. Smaller transistors can improve a chip’s calculating speed, boost data-storage capacity and reduce the cost of delivering either function. Where Fairchild once sold transistors for as much as USD 150 each, a typical Intel microprocessor in 2019 contained 5 billion of them—each costing USD 0.0000001, or a penny per 100000 transistors, the company estimated.
Over the years, fewer and fewer companies have been able to keep up with Moore’s Law, and firms that could were those that sold chips in huge volumes. Factories that once cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars now cost $5 billion or more. Even chip companies that use external manufacturing services have struggled lately with stiff costs to design chips that comprise so many transistors.
Nowadays, whether Moore’s Law still holds is a well-worn debate among engineers and semiconductor executives. Predictions of its longevity or demise alternate depending on how much someone’s livelihood depends on it. Intel executives still hew to the law as a kind of corporate dogma.
“It was a mandate at the company, and we refused to let it not be true,” said Andy Bryant, a former Intel chairman.
Mr. Moore was born on Jan. 3, 1929, in San Francisco but was raised about 50 miles south in a small community near the coast called Pescadero, then known for farming, fishing and hunting. His father was a county sheriff, his mother a homemaker. Mr. Moore decided at the age of 10 to be a chemist, pursuing experiments that sometimes ended in explosions.
He attended San Jose State University and later received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. He moved south to Pasadena with his wife Betty to attend the California Institute of Technology, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry and physics.
After graduating in 1954, the couple moved to Maryland after Mr. Moore accepted a staff job at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.
A few years afterward, he answered a call from William Shockley, who later would share a Nobel Prize for helping to invent the transistor (and become infamous for promoting eugenics), to join the electronic pioneer’s new California company, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.
But he, Mr. Noyce and six others became frustrated with Mr. Shockley’s leadership and left in 1957. The group, dubbed the Traitorous Eight, founded Fairchild as a unit of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. Mr. Moore led a research and development team that initially made transistors before Mr. Noyce helped invent the idea of combining multiple components on silicon wafers to create chips.
Fairchild’s success prompted others to try their hands at starting chip companies—some 30 of them, according to industry researcher Endeavour Insight. One was Intel. In 1968, frustrated by having to answer to Fairchild executives based on the East Coast, Mr. Moore and Mr. Noyce quit and started their next company. They were soon joined at Intel by Mr. Grove, whom Mr. Moore had hired for Fairchild out of graduate school.
Intel’s early success was built upon memory, or silicon chips that store and transmit data. It wasn’t until later, in the mid-1970s after Mr. Moore succeeded Mr. Noyce as Intel’s CEO, that the company successfully marketed its microprocessors and invented ways of communicating between chips and computer software that underpin CPUs to this day.
Mr. Moore yielded to Mr. Grove in 1987, around the time when Intel pulled back from its memory business as cheaper alternatives from Japan flooded the market. The company then made a seemingly risky bet in embracing CPUs as its main product. Intel currently owns about 70% of that market.
Even after he stepped down as CEO, Mr. Moore remained close to the company, holding the role of chairman from 1979 to 1997, and serving as chairman emeritus until 2006.
Mr. Moore put much of his energy in later years into philanthropy. In 2000, he and his wife established the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which focuses on scientific discovery, improvement in patient care, environmental conservation and causes related to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in May 2016 awarded him its David Packard Award for the foundation’s work on issues such as reducing overfishing. The foundation and the Moores in 2001 donated $600 million to the California Institute of Technology and pledged $100 million more in 2015.
Moore’s Law today is considered by many observers to be reaching the end of its reign. But Mr. Moore never meant for the rule of thumb that bears his name to be set in stone. He insisted he simply had made an observation about a phase of industry activity that one day would become technically impossible. But he avoided saying exactly when.
“One thing I’ve learned—once you’ve made a successful prediction, avoid making another one,” Mr. Moore joked at a 2015 event to celebrate 50 years of Moore’s Law.
Mr. Moore is survived by his wife, Betty; two sons, Kenneth G. Moore and Steven E. Moore; their wives; and four grandchildren.