Somebody had to do it, and Leslie Berlin figured it might as well be her. What she didn't expect was that her biography of Intel co-founder...
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Somebody had to do it, and Leslie Berlin figured it might as well be her.
What she didn’t expect was that her biography of Intel co-founder Bob Noyce would take 10 years to write and that she’d end up living with a ghost in the process.
“It was almost as if I was standing next to him as his life was happening,” says Berlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford who specializes in the history of technology.
History of technology. Bob Noyce’s life was that. He’s the man who as much as anyone helped make Silicon Valley what it is today.
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He helped start Fairchild Semiconductor, the seed of Silicon Valley. He helped invent the first practical semiconductor. He mentored legions of technologists who went on to mentor more.
Ten years is a long time to spend with someone — especially someone you’d never even heard of while he was alive. But Berlin’s knowledge of and affection for Noyce comes through in conversation and in “The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley,” published by Oxford University Press.
It all started the way these things often start. In the mid-’90s, Berlin was out to read all she could about the history of Silicon Valley. It seemed every time she turned a page she ran into Noyce, who died in 1990.
“I decided to take a shortcut and read a biography about Noyce — and there wasn’t one.”
Still, her fascination grew. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Noyce. She sent a copy to Noyce’s second wife and widow, Ann Bowers.
“She said, ‘If you ever decide you want to do a biography, we would support that.’ “
Funny she should mention.
The Noyce family put Berlin onto piles of documents and helped with access to scores of Noyce contemporaries and disciples. Which isn’t to say the research was a breeze.
“One reason it took me so long,” Berlin, 35, says, “I had to go all over the place to find his stuff.”
She went to Intel, MIT, National Semiconductor. She went through people’s basements and visited Noyce’s hometown, Grinnell, Iowa.
Talk about the thrill of the hunt. Imagine stumbling across Noyce’s notes on groundbreaking circuit designs.
Or finding a letter in which Noyce complains about his old boss and Nobel winner, William Shockley. Or holding a dollar bill signed by all eight Fairchild founders. The crisp dollar served as the contract among them to start the company.
Berlin even read 12-year-old Bobby Noyce’s journal. In it he wrote, “My hobby is handicraft. I like this hobby because it is useful. You can make things cheaply that are worth a lot.”
“There’s the semiconductor industry for you,” she says.
Berlin often brought her work home to her husband and two kids.
“The extent to which my life and his life became intertwined. We’d talk about him at the dinner table.”
Her kids, ages 9 and 6, started referring to Noyce as “Mommy’s Bob.” They’d point out the Intel campus visible from Highway 101.
“It was a real honor getting to know him,” Berlin says. “It sounds sort of funny, but a real pleasure.”
And it wasn’t bad finishing the book, either. Especially knowing that it was a story that simply needed to be told.
Mike Cassidy is a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.