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Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder whose theory on computer-chip development became the yardstick for progress in the electronics industry, has died. He was 94.
Moore died peacefully surrounded by family at his home in Hawaii on Friday, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation said in a statement.
A founder of industry pioneer Fairchild Semiconductor, Moore in 1968 co-founded Intel, which grew into the world’s largest semiconductor maker at one point. The Santa Clara, California-based company supplies about 80% of the world’s personal computers with their most important part, the microprocessor. Moore was chief executive officer from 1975 to 1987.
Intel and other semiconductor makers still develop products according to a version of Moore’s Law, the scientist’s 1965 observation that the number of transistors on a computer chip — which determines the speed, memory and capabilities of an electronic device — doubles every year. The law, which Moore revised in 1975, remains a yardstick for progress both within and beyond the chip industry, even as its continued applicability is a topic of debate.
Moore’s observation was fundamental to Intel’s rise to prominence. The company poured increasing sums into improving manufacturing of the tiny electronic components at a pace its rivals couldn’t keep up with. The torrid rate of progress made Intel’s technology the hardware heart of the personal computer revolution, then the internet revolution, until the company’s Asian rivals challenged its leadership.
Alive and Well
“Intel will be the steward of Moore’s Law for decades to come,” Chief Executive Officer Pat Gelsinger said in a January 2022 interview. He said the law “is alive and we’re going to keep it very well.”
Carver Mead, an engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology, came up with the name Moore’s Law. Moore himself expressed surprise at its influence and longevity and preferred to demystify and downplay it.
“I wanted to get across, here’s an idea where the technology is going to evolve rapidly and it’s going to have a major impact on the cost of electronics,” Moore recalled for a video produced by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. “That was the main point I was trying to get across, that this was going to be the path to low-cost electronics.”
Moore was director of research and development at Fairchild when he made his famous projection in an article, “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” for the April 19, 1965, edition of Electronics magazine. Noting that the most cost-efficient circuit at that time held 50 transistors, he predicted that number would roughly double each year to 65,000. Modern microprocessors have billions of transistors.
In the same article he wrote: “Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers, or at least terminals connected to a central computer, automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communications equipment.”
Revising his law in 1975, Moore said components per chip would grow half as quickly, doubling every two years rather than every year. An Intel colleague, David House, came up with the often-quoted corollary that a chip’s performance, due to both the number and quality of transistors, would double every 18 months.
Intel’s proxy statement in 2006 showed Moore owned 173 million shares. That’s the last time his name appears in the company’s regulatory filings. His net worth was about $7.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
In 2000, Moore set up the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which reported assets of $9.5 billion as of 2021, making it one of the biggest private grant-making foundations in the US. It supports environmental conservation, patient care and scientific research worldwide, as well as local causes in the San Francisco Bay area. Moore said his concern for the environment stemmed from his love of fishing.
Among their major gifts, Moore and his wife gave $600 million to Caltech, located in Pasadena, California; $200 million to Caltech and the University of California to build the world’s most powerful optical telescope; and $100 million to the University of California at Davis to build a nursing school.
Gordon Earle Moore was born on Jan. 3, 1929, in San Francisco and raised in Pescadero, California. His family moved to Redwood City, California, when he was 10. His father, Walter, was a deputy sheriff. His mother, Florence Almira Williamson, owned a small general store.
Moore saw a chemistry set at a neighbor’s house and decided he wanted to be a chemist. He began experimenting with making rockets and explosives and studied chemistry at San Jose State University. There, he met his wife, the former Betty Whittaker. They would have two children, Kenneth and Steven.
Moore transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and, in 1950, became the first person in his family to graduate from college. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. in physics and chemistry from Caltech.
He landed a job as a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland. William Shockley, who had created the transistor at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and who would share the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics, recruited Moore to his Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory near Palo Alto, California.
Moore and seven co-workers, including Robert Noyce, left to found Fairchild in 1957 with $3,500 of their own money and a $1.5 million investment from Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. Shockley dubbed them the “Traitorous Eight.” Noyce, in the late 1950s, helped invent the integrated circuit, the basis of all chip designs to this day. He died in 1990.
Noyce and Moore formed Intel, a contraction of “integrated electronics,” in a former Union Carbide factory in Mountain View, the heart of what they would help build into Silicon Valley. Moore’s first title was executive vice president. Andy Grove, another Fairchild employee, soon joined them.
In 1971, Intel introduced its first microprocessor, holding more than 2,000 transistors. Its 8080 microprocessor was in the Altair 8800, introduced in 1975 and widely considered the first successful personal computer. In 1981, IBM selected Intel’s 8088 microprocessor to power its first personal computer.
Moore became president and CEO in 1975, then chairman and CEO in 1979. Grove succeeded him as CEO in 1987, and Moore retired from Intel’s board in 2001 at age 72, in accordance with a mandatory retirement-age policy that he instituted.
Moore “does not boast, although his record of achievement provides a great deal to boast about,” Richard Tedlow wrote in his 2006 biography of Grove. “He appears to be, that is to say, simply a regular person.” Tedlow quoted Grove calling Moore “a smart guy with no airs.”
Today, most chip industry leaders and observers would argue that Moore’s Law no longer holds. Some of the layers of materials used to build semiconductors are only an atom thick, meaning they cannot be shrunk further. At such tiny geometries the properties of those materials that make them semiconductors break down. That destroys their usefulness as the microscopic switches used to represent the most basic form of electronic information.
Unlike succeeding Intel leaders who rebutted predictions of Moore’s Law’s demise, Moore predicted its irrelevance.
“Someday it has to stop,” Moore said at an event in 2015 to commemorate his law’s 50th anniversary. “No exponential thing like this goes on forever.”
Moore is survived by Betty Irene Whitaker, whom he married in 1950, as well as sons Kenneth and Steven and four grandchildren.