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Book Review of: The Man Behind the Microchip


To understand one of the most influential inventions of all time--and the culture and people behind it--read this book.

The Man Behind the Microchip:
Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley


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Review of The Man Behind the Microchip, by Leslie Berlin 

Reviewer: 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 against.

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 lasting.

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 reader:

  1. 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.
     
  2. 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.
     
  3. 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.
     
  4. 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 way.
     
  5. 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.
     
  6. 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 feeling.
     
  7. 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 this, too).

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 huge plus.

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 granted today.

Don't you want to know how it all came about? Read this book and find out.



 

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About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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