Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder whose theory of computer chip development became the benchmark for progress in the electronics industry, has died. He was 94 years old.
Moore passed away on Friday peacefully surrounded by his family at his home in Hawaii, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation said in a statement.
Founder of an industry pioneer Fairchild Semiconductor, Moore in 1968 co-founded Intel, which at some point became the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company supplies about 80% of the world’s personal computers with their most important element, the microprocessor. Moore served as general manager from 1975 to 1987.
Intel and other semiconductor manufacturers are still developing products according to a version of Moore’s law, the scientist’s observation in 1965 that the number of transistors on a computer chip – which determine the speed, memory and capabilities of an electronic device – doubles every year. The law, which Moore revised in 1975, remains a benchmark for progress both within and beyond the chip industry, although its continued applicability is a matter of debate.
Moore’s observation was fundamental to Intel’s rise to prominence. The company invested increasing sums in improving the manufacture of tiny electronic components at a pace that its rivals could not keep up with. The breakneck pace of progress made Intel’s technology the hardware heart of the personal computer revolution, and then the Internet revolution, until the company’s Asian rivals challenged its leadership.
Safe and sound
“Intel will be the guardian of Moore’s Law for decades to come,” CEO Pat Gelsinger said in a January 2022 interview. He said the law “is alive and we’re going to do very well with it.”
Carver Mead, an engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology, coined the name Moore’s Law. Moore himself expressed surprise at his influence and longevity and preferred to demystify and minimize it.
“I wanted to drive home, here’s an idea where the technology is going to move quickly and it’s going to have a major impact on the cost of electronics,” Moore recalled for a video produced by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. “That was the main point I was trying to drive home, that this was going to be the path to low-cost electronics.”
Moore was director of research and development at Fairchild when he made his famous projection in a article, “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits”, for the April 19, 1965 edition of Electronics magazine. Noting that the most cost-effective circuit at the time contained 50 transistors, he predicted that this number would double roughly every year to 65,000. Modern microprocessors have billions of transistors.
In the same article, he writes: “Integrated circuits will lead to marvels such as personal computers, or at least terminals connected to a central computer, automatic controls for automobiles and portable personal communication equipment.
Revising his law in 1975, Moore said components per chip would grow at half the rate, doubling every two years rather than every year. An Intel colleague, David House, has proposed the oft-quoted corollary that a chip’s performance, due to both the number and quality of transistors, would double every 18 months.
Intel’s 2006 proxy statement showed Moore owned 173 million shares. This is the last time his name appears in the company’s regulatory documents. His net worth was around $7.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
In 2000, Moore created the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which reported assets of $9.5 billion in 2021, making it one of the largest private grantmaking foundations in the United States. It supports environmental conservation, patient care, and scientific research worldwide, as well as local causes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Moore said his concern for the environment stems from his love of fishing.
Among their major gifts, Moore and his wife gave $600 million to Caltech, located in Pasadena, California; $200 million to Caltech and the University of California to build the world’s most powerful optical telescope; and $100 million to the University of California, Davis to build a nursing school.
Gordon Earle Moore was born January 3, 1929 in San Francisco and grew up in Pescadero, California. His family moved to Redwood City, California when he was 10 years old. Her father, Walter, was a deputy sheriff. His mother, Florence Almira Williamson, owned a small general store.
Moore saw a chemistry set at a neighbor’s house and decided he wanted to be a chemist. He began experimenting with making rockets and explosives and studied chemistry at San Jose State University. There he met his wife, the former Betty Whittaker. They would have two children, Kenneth and Steven.
Moore transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1950 became the first person in his family to earn a college degree. In 1954 he obtained a doctorate. in physics and chemistry from Caltech.
He landed a job as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland. William Chocleywho had created the transistor at Bell Telephone Laboratories and who would share the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956, recruited Moore from his Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory near Palo Alto, California.
Moore and seven colleagues, including Robert Noyce, set out to found Fairchild in 1957 with $3,500 of their own money and a $1.5 million investment from Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. Shockley dubbed them the “treacherous eight”. Noyce in the late 1950s helped invent the integrated circuit, the basis of all chip designs to date. He died in 1990.
Noyce and Moore formed Intel, a contraction of “embedded electronics,” in a former Union Carbide factory in Mountain View, the heart of what they would help build in Silicon Valley. Moore’s first title was executive vice president. Andy Grove, another Fairchild employee, soon joined them.
In 1971, Intel introduced its first microprocessor, containing over 2,000 transistors. Its 8080 microprocessor was in the Altair 8800, introduced in 1975 and widely regarded as the first successful personal computer. In 1981, IBM chose Intel’s 8088 microprocessor to power its first personal computer.
Moore became president and CEO in 1975, then president and CEO in 1979. Grove succeeded him as CEO in 1987, and Moore retired from Intel’s board of directors in 2001 at the age of 72, in accordance with a mandatory retirement age policy he instituted.
Moore “doesn’t brag, though his track record offers plenty to brag about,” Richard Tedlow wrote in his 2006 biography of Grove. “He seems to be, that is, just an ordinary person.” Tedlow quoted Grove calling Moore “an airless smart dude”.
Today, most chip industry leaders and observers would say that Moore’s Law no longer holds. Some of the layers of materials used to build semiconductors are only one atom thick, which means they cannot be shrunk any further. At such tiny geometries, the properties of these materials that make them semiconductors break down. This destroys their usefulness as microscopic switches used to represent the most basic form of electronic information.
Unlike successive Intel executives who refuted predictions of Moore’s Law demise, Moore predicted its irrelevance.
“One day it’s got to stop,” Moore said at a 2015 event to commemorate his law’s 50th anniversary. “No exponential thing like this lasts forever.”
Moore is survived by Betty Irene Whitaker, whom he married in 1950, as well as his sons Kenneth and Steven and four grandchildren.