The Man Behind the Microchip, by Leslie Berlin |
Mark Lamendola, Senior IEEE member, IEEE Region 5 Outstanding Member,
and recipient of multiple IEEE awards.
This review is a departure from my typical "book
report" style, because I have too many things to say about it for that
format to work.
Isaac Asimov called the invention of integrated circuit
(IC) "the most important moment since man emerged as a life form." If you
look at how ICs have changed the world, that's a hard viewpoint to argue
I personally own quite a few ICs and you probably do
also. They are everywhere. If you own a cell phone, a computer, or an
automobile, you own at least several million transistors. Transistors
inside ICs have made possible many things that were not even imagined 100
years ago. Think about all of today's communications, conveniences,
explorations, exchanges, transportation, information processing,
productivity, and advances in medicine. None of this would exist, if not
for Dr. Bob Noyce.
It's hard to imagine that the drive, intelligence, and
unique personality of one man could have had so much influence on bringing
this about. But, it did. The IC changed the macro culture--even our brains
are wired differently because of microelectronics (see
http://www.mindconnection.com/books/thenewbrain.htm). It also created
a micro culture we call Silicon Valley--a major engine for economic and
scientific growth. The change brought about by Dr. Noyce was deep and
This book is the story of that change and of the man
behind it. But if Dr. Noyce, who died in 1990, were here today, he would
make it clear that every invention depends on the breakthroughs that came
before it. So in
The Man Behind the Microchip, you read not just about Dr. Noyce, but
about the people whom he motivated and inspired.
The Man Behind the Microchip offers at least seven things to the
- A great story. I like stories where the hero
faces tough odds, falls, gets back up, and prevails over one obstacle
after another until he finally wins. That was the real story of Bob
Noyce. He didn't come from privilege, and he didn't have instant
success. He was human, and Berlin portrays him that way. Like all
humans, he didn't succeed at everything he tried. Sometimes, his
failures were enough to stop any ordinary man. But Dr. Noyce was no
ordinary man. And therein lies the story.
- Inspiration. Have you ever watched somebody do
something much more difficult than what you are faced with? Didn't that
make you feel like you could tackle your challenge and beat it?
"Gosh, if he can do that, then I can do this." Understanding the
heights of Dr. Noyce's super-extraordinary accomplishments is enough to
inspire anyone to accomplish the extraordinary.
- History. When we lose our history, we lose our
knowledge of who we are. So, the history is important. It deepens both
our understanding and our appreciation for the way things are.
- Good writing. As an American who grew up in the
United States, I often wonder if the people who write most of the books
for today's market read much or ever got a passing grade in an English
class. Language is a social contract that facilitates the exchange of
ideas. Unlike many of today's "writers," Leslie Berlin honors that
contract. But beyond simply getting the mechanics right, Berlin knows
how to turn a phrase and how to convey ideas in a clear and compelling
- Insight. One of the traits we engineers are known
for is we don't just lead a horse to water. We tend to dunk its head in
the water. We mean well, but the poor horse thinks we're trying to drown
it rather than slake its thirst. Not all engineers are this way, of
course, and it's not just engineers who do this. Dr. Noyce set a good
example for all of us dunkers to follow. By reading how he handled
things, I learned something. And it wasn't something trivial.
- A lesson in humility. It's easy to look at your
own accomplishments or credentials, and let your head get big. I
remember judging applications for IEEE Senior Membership, in 2003. I was
sitting next to Rick Bush, who is a long-time mentor of mine. I am not
alone in being in in awe of Rick (there aren't many people who get an
"awe" rating from me). But even Rick was bowled over by what we were
reading. We were sitting in judgment of people with multiple doctorates,
dozens of patents, and work accomplishments that seemed surreal. I put
my thumb and forefinger together and told Rick, "I feel this big." He
said, "Me, too." Reading about Dr. Noyce (again) brought out that same
- A lesson in greatness. Though Noyce's larger than
life self--all which was just as Berlin described--humbled me, it also
elevated me. Noyce lived a life that said no individual should think he
is great on his own, but that every individual can be great by
respecting others and bringing out the greatness in them. (Rick does
While reviewing this book, I exchanged e-mails with
Dick Hodgman (not to be confused with Dick Hodgson, who is in the book).
Hodgman is another IEEE Senior member whom I hold in awe. He worked at
Intel when Noyce was there, and they spoke many times. Dick helped me get
some thoughts together for this review.
Form is important, as it dictates readability.
Fortunately, this book scored very well on substance and on form.
This book actually uses Standard Written English (SWE). This was a
refreshing change from the Pidgin English that so many of today's authors
slop onto our reading palettes. The care taken in writing this book shows
that the author and publisher actually cared about the reader. That's a
Warren Buffet, who "does not give endorsements,"
endorsed this book. After reading it, I can see why.
If you have any interest in history, human drama, or
the genesis of Silicon Valley, this book is a must read. I don't
say that just because I'm active in the IEEE and Bob Noyce was "one of our
own." I say that because you would not be reading this review--or anything
else--online if not for Dr. Noyce. Nor would there be an Amazon.com, cell
phones, or any of the thousands of other wonderful things that we take for
Don't you want to know how it all came about? Read
this book and find out.