Intel co-founder Gordon Moore dies at 94
Gordon Earle Moore, who became a legendary Silicon Valley figure by cofounding microchip makers Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor and for formulating his famous law about the inevitable advances to come from chip technology, died Friday. He was 94.
Intel’s phenomenal growth inspired legions of tech entrepreneurs across the valley and elsewhere while making Moore one of the richest men on the planet. But he was a down-home, self-effacing person who was rarely happier than when he was off in some wilderness fishing. And he was praised for donating much of his wealth to environmental and other causes.
Born Jan. 3, 1929, in San Francisco, Moore was raised in Pescadero and Redwood City by his homemaker mom and his dad, who patrolled the area for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. While in his teens, he began toying with a neighbor’s chemistry set and enjoyed triggering explosions by hammering drops of nitroglycerin on an anvil.
The blasts were so loud “my ears would just ring like hell,” and years later he discovered he had permanently damaged his hearing, he recalled in a 2009 interview with this news organization.
His inquisitiveness for science grew, and he went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry and physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1954. But his classes didn’t include business training, and he came out of college with little idea of how to run a company, much less start one.
“There is such a thing as a natural-born entrepreneur, for whom the entrepreneurial urge drives everything and who can make a business out of almost anything,” Moore wrote in a 1994 an article about his life for Caltech’s Engineering & Science quarterly. “But the accidental entrepreneur like me has to fall into the opportunity or be pushed into it.”
His first foray into the world of commerce was not encouraging. He applied for a management position at Dow Chemical, which was considering establishing a research laboratory in California. However, according to Moore, a Dow psychologist who interviewed him concluded, “I was OK technically, but I’d never manage anything.”
Eventually landing a job at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Moore fretted about how much the lab scientists’ publications were costing taxpayers — $5 a word he calculated — and he longed to return to California.
Although Lawrence Livermore Laboratory offered him work, he turned them down, not wanting to get involved in its nuclear-blast studies. Then, Nobel Prize winner William Shockley, who had helped invent the transistor and learned of Moore through the lab, convinced him in 1956 to join Shockley’s Mountain View startup, which was developing inexpensive silicon transistors.
But morale at the company quickly deteriorated due to the sometimes abrasive idiosyncrasies of Shockley, who demanded all his employees undergo lie detector tests. A year later, Moore and seven co-workers — now widely referred to as the Traitorous Eight — quit to form Palo Alto chip maker Fairchild Semiconductor, a division of Fairchild Camera and Instrument.
“This is where I finally became an entrepreneur,” Moore later said.
He and the other co-founders each invested $500 — a month’s salary at the time — and Fairchild Camera kicked in $1.3 million to launch the venture, where Moore became research director. The business hit a technological home run when one of the founders, Robert Noyce, co-invented the microchip. Yet at the time, no one at the firm fully understood the implications of what Noyce had accomplished.
“We didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the opportunity we were dealing with,” Moore recalled in his 1994 article. “We were still a bunch of guys in a laboratory, somewhat amazed that people actually wanted to buy our products.”
By the late 60s, Fairchild had 30,000 employees and was racking up $150 million in annual sales. But when Noyce was passed over for the CEO’s job, he decided to quit, and Moore left with him in 1968.
With an investment of less than $3 million and a single-page business plan, the pair started NM Electronics in Mountain View, renamed Intel that year and later headquartered in Santa Clara.
Serving initially as Intel’s executive vice president, Moore became president and CEO in 1975 and four years later chairman and CEO. He remained CEO until 1987 and was named chairman emeritus in 1997.
During his involvement with the company, which began by making memory chips and then the microprocessors that serve as the brains of most personal computers, Intel became a global tech powerhouse. Its stock market value flirted with a half trillion dollars in 2000. And while that has dropped to about $120.1 billion, the firm is the world’s fifth biggest chip maker and the fourth biggest revenue generator in Silicon Valley behind Apple, Alphabet and Meta.
Yet much of his fame is attributable to what has become known as Moore’s Law, a prediction he made and later updated with remarkable prescience during his tenure at Fairchild and Intel.
Initially published in a 1965 Electronics Magazine article in which he mused that “integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers … automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communications equipment, it forecast that the number of tiny transistors squeezed onto chips would roughly double every year. In 1975, he changed that to every two years, a revision that generally has proven prophetic.
Exemplifying the spirt of innovation and the boundless possibilities of technology, his formula has acquired epic stature in the lore of Silicon Valley. Nonetheless, he was so embarrassed by the attention he got from Moore’s Law, so named by his friend, Caltech professor Carver Mead, “for decades, I couldn’t even say the words,” Moore noted.
The quiet-spoken Moore wasn’t given to emotional outbursts. The only way his coworkers could tell he was upset was when his fingers would twist paper clips into mangled shapes, according to former Intel CEO Craig R. Barrett. Instead, he was known for his self-deprecating humor and down-to-earth sagacity.
“One thing you find out after a little bit of experience as an entrepreneur,” he liked to say, “is that the bank will lend you money as long as you don’t need it” and “you can sell stock as long as you really don’t have to.”
While Moore’s peers praised him for possessing a rare combination of talent in both business and science, he was persistently self-effacing. Asked by this news organization to comment on his place in history, he replied, “I was lucky enough to be at the beginning of a major industry at a time when what I knew was useful.”
He also was quick to acknowledge what he described as “things I’m not quite so proud of.”
At Intel, that included laying off thousands of employees when the economy went south, getting involved in the short-lived digital watch business and failing to jump at the chance to become a personal computer maker.
“Long before Apple, one of our engineers came to me with the suggestion that Intel ought to build a computer for the home,” he remembered in his 1994 article. But Moore assumed such gadgets wouldn’t have enough practical uses to make them profitable.
As Intel grew to dominate the chip industry, Moore became astonishingly rich from his stock in the company. He estimated he was worth $26 billion by 2000. But his fortune substantially shrank as the company’s share price plunged and he gave away much of his wealth.
Using $5 billion worth of Intel stock, he and his wife, Betty, who met while they both attended San Jose State University in 2000, established the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to help finance environmental conservation, science and Bay Area causes. The foundation has since given more than $5.1 billion to beneficiaries ranging from the Tech Museum of Innovation to the Peninsula Open Space Trust to the Alameda County Medical Center.
The natural world was an obsession for Moore, a Republican who over his lifetime became increasing disheartened by civilization’s relentless intrusion into once-pristine places. He was particularly alarmed by what he and his wife saw during their many fishing trips outside of the U.S. But he also grew dismayed at the loss of the Bay Area’s once-vast agricultural areas.
“I grew up there when it was orchards and cities were actually separated, you know, from Mountain View to Sunnyvale,” he told this news organization. “Now it’s just one mess from Gilroy to San Francisco. You just see everything changing in the direction of getting rid of anything that looks wild.”
An avid outdoorsman who often kept his cellphone off to avoid bothersome calls, he was a fanatical fisherman who especially loved catching trout, made some of his own angling gear and was once spotted trying out a new net on Intel’s lawn.
Moore, who maintained a home in Woodside but stayed much of the time in a house he bought in Hawaii in 1998, was rarely happier than when traveling with his wife or his buddies to some remote part of the earth where he could elude the hubbub of modern society.
Asked last year about his greatest experiences, he described going to an isolated Australian sand spit where he labored for more than three hours unsuccessfully trying to land a sawfish and swatted voracious horseflies.
“One night we killed 360 of them, ” he said of the pesky bugs. “That was a memorable fishing trip.”
But he never lost his infatuation with technology.
Invited to speak at a 2007 conference Intel held for software developers, he talked enthusiastically about some of the innovations transforming society, including language recognition technology, which he predicted would one day enable people to talk to their computers without having to input commands with their fingers.
“Things are changing so fast,” Moore said. “I’d love to come back 100 years from now and see what had happened in the meantime. We’re living in just a fantastic time period.”
Staff writer Jason Green contributed to this report.