Home   About   Timeline   The Book

Electronics Essay


Gordon E. Moore
Chairman Emeritus
Intel Corporation

The discovery of the electron in 1897 set the stage for electronics to develop over the ensuing century. Most of the first half of the 20th century was devoted to controlling electrons in a vacuum with electric and magnetic fields to make amplifiers, oscillators, and switches. These gave us, among other things, radio, television, radar, and the first computers.

The last half of the century saw the rise of solid-state electronics, beginning with the invention of the transistor in 1947. I arrived on the scene in 1956 to join William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, who was establishing the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to develop a commercial silicon transistor. By then the advantages of transistors over vacuum tubes were apparent for many applications; it was only necessary to make transistors reliable and cheap.

But Shockley changed his original goal, turning his focus to another semiconductor device he had invented while at Bell Labs—a four-layer diode possibly useful in telephone switches but not much else. A group of us (the Fairchild 8) went off to found a new company, Fairchild Semiconductor, to continue to pursue the silicon transistor. Fortunately we at Fairchild were on the right track technologically when Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments demonstrated a complete circuit made of semiconductor materials. My colleague Bob Noyce saw how the Fairchild technology could be extended to make it practical to manufacture a complete circuit, rather than just individual transistors. Shortly after Bob's inventions he was promoted to general manager and I was left to oversee development of the technology extensions that ultimately led to the computer chips we are all familiar with today.

The new integrated devices did not find a ready market. Users were concerned because the individual transistors, resistors, and other electronic circuit components could not be tested individually to ensure their reliability. Also, early integrated circuits were expensive, and they impinged on the turf that traditionally belonged to the circuit designers at the customer's company. Again, Bob Noyce made a seminal contribution. He offered to sell the complete circuits for less than the customer could purchase individual components to build them. (It was also significantly less than it was costing us to build them!) This step opened the market and helped develop the manufacturing volumes necessary to reduce manufacturing costs to competitive levels. To this day the cost reductions resulting from economies of scale and newer high-density technology are passed on to the user—often before they are actually realized by the circuit manufacturer. As a result, we all know that the high-performance electronic gadget of today will be replaced with one of higher performance and lower cost tomorrow.

The integrated circuit completely changed the economics of electronics. Initially we looked forward to the time when an individual transistor might sell for a dollar. Today that dollar can buy tens of millions of transistors as part of a complex circuit. This cost reduction has made the technology ubiquitous—nearly any application that processes information today can be done most economically electronically. No other technology that I can identify has undergone such a dramatic decrease in cost, let alone the improved performance that comes from making things smaller and smaller. The technology has advanced so fast that I am amazed we can design and manufacture the products in common use today. It is a classic case of lifting ourselves up by our bootstraps—only with today's increasingly powerful computers can we design tomorrow's chips.


     1 - New Gadget
     2 - Foundation
     3 - Vacuum Switches
     4 - Transistors
     5 - Microprocessors
     Essay - Gordon E. Moore

Copyright © 2017 National Academy of Sciences on behalf of the National Academy of Engineering.
Printer-Friendly Version. Text-Only Version. Contact Us.