PBS review: 'Silicon Valley' profiles maverick behind early development of PCs

Published: Monday, Feb. 4 2013 5:13 p.m. MST

Robert Noyce, right, with Eugene Kleiner, Julius Blank, Gordon Moore, Sheldon Roberts, Jay Last, Jean Hoerni and Victor Grinich. The “Traitorous Eight” founded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957.

Wayne Miller

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Without Robert Noyce there would have been no Steve Jobs.

And without Noyce, NASA’s moon walk would have been delayed many years.

A PBS documentary about computer geeks designed to appeal to more than just computer geeks, “American Experience: Silicon Valley” airs on KUED Tuesday, Feb. 5, 8 p.m.

For those of us who have never seen the guts inside of our PCs without a techie doing the motherboard repair, Noyce was a brilliant and charismatic physicist, and the maverick credited as co-inventor of the world-changing integrated circuit. As Wikipedia explains, an integrated circuit is a set of electronic circuits on one small plate, or “chip” — hence the name microchip.

What made the invention completely revolutionary is that the ubiquitous mass-produced component is so tremendously compact, the largest is the size of our pinkie fingernail, yet can still contain several billion transistors and other electronic components. Beyond the electronic circuit’s necessity to PCs, NASA could not have gone to the moon without it and there wouldn’t be a smartphone in your pocket right now.

As we learn from “Silicon Valley,” Noyce was the brash and innovative leader of the eight men who founded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957.

A pioneer in integrated circuit manufacturing, Fairchild continues as a thriving company, with offices around the world including a facility in West Jordan with 500 employees. Fairchild also incubated numerous other companies that would become known as “Fairchildren,” including a little company named Intel — the company that at its founding raised $2.5 million in two days and is now the world’s largest and highest valued semiconductor chip manufacturer.

There was no official contract-signing when the bright but frustrated “Traitorous Eight,” as they were called, made their historic break from the all-star technical team of Shockley Semiconductor. But they each signed freshly minted dollar bills as a symbol of their joint commitment.

“Those dollar bills they signed are Silicon Valley’s declaration of independence,” says Leslie Berlin, author of “The Man Behind the Microchip.” “It was a statement that ‘we are going to go out start a company according to our own ideals and our own beliefs and nothing is going to stop us.’ ”

By way of the story of Noyce, the documentary also tells the story of the transformation of California’s Santa Clara Valley from the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” for its endless acres of apricot and other fruit orchards, to the massive technology park of Silicon Valley and the hotbed of an influential $100 billion industry.

Along with relating the Fairchild founders’ signatures on dollar bills, one interesting aspect of the documentary is the Silicon Valley’s rustic beginnings. “The (first Fairchild) building had no electricity, no phones, no water,” says Jay Last, a physicist colleague of Noyce. “We didn’t have any toilets. We had to go to the gas station down the street.”

The documentary leans heavily on Noyce biographer Berlin and veteran Silicon Valley author Michael Malone, who wrote “A Silicon Valley Notebook 1963-2001” and “The Big Score.” And, as computer techies would know, "Silicon Valley" brings little new that hasn’t been covered in these books.

But it is the story of risk-taking scientific innovators — and American dreamers.

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