The Quiet Man Behind the Computer Revolution

Gordon Moore’s tech vision changed modern times. He wants his giving to change life 10,000 years from now.

Every few months, the same story briefly ripples across the news media: Moore’s law will soon be kaput. To the extent that the general public can be said to know anything about Moore’s law, it seems to know two things. First, Moore’s law is a rule of thumb that describes how computer chips will keep getting better and cheaper. And second, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

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But few people, even among the high-tech cognoscenti, know much about the Moore behind the law. Gordon Moore helped create and then guide the microchip industry. As that industry transformed modern life, he became vastly wealthy. Today he gives away his fortune through one of the biggest foundations in the United States. And yet, because he has always been a low-key individual, intensely focused on work, business, and technology, he is less familiar to the public than many Silicon Valley figures who have taken more pleasure in the limelight.

A new biography makes it possible to know Moore much better. Written with the cooperation of its subject and his family, Moore’s Law is the product of a trio of authors who draw on interviews with everyone they could think of and archival materials from every conceivable source. The result is an exhaustive, if at times exhausting, account of the man’s professional career, private life, and philanthropic aspirations. It shows how this constitutionally conservative man—a self-described “accidental entrepreneur”—came to lead a revolution.

Gordon Moore was born in 1929 into a family that had arrived in California just before the Gold Rush. He spent his first nine years in a small farming community originally settled by his great-grandfather. Moore’s father, a WWI infantry veteran, was an undersheriff; Moore’s mother came from the family that ran the only store in town; they were practical, stoic, thrifty people. Natural introversion and the presence of the Pescadero Creek near his backyard led Moore to a lifelong interest in fishing.

Moore’s intense reserve caused him problems in school—he nearly had to repeat first grade and was later tossed into a remedial speech class—until he discovered chemistry, which his biographers call “his first true love.” Moore’s next-door neighbor had received a chemistry set for Christmas. The two boys started blowing stuff up. There followed years of hands-on, and sometimes hands-scorching, experience in a home lab he built for himself. “Most people who knew me then would have described me as quiet,” he recalls, “except for the bombs.”

Moore spent his first two years of college at San Jose State, where he studied chemistry (and would still make “a bomb now and then, for old times’ sake”), and where he met Betty Whitaker, a journalism student. Betty had grown up on a fruits-and-nuts ranch in what was then known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, now known as Silicon Valley. The two stayed an item even when he transferred to Berkeley, where his professors included three future Nobel laureates.

The summer after his commencement, he asked her to marry him, which she did, after planning the event all on her own. “I was even going to work on my wedding day,” he recalls. A day and a half later, he started his graduate work at Caltech. While Gordon took courses with such scientific luminaries as Linus Pauling (“very intimidating”) and Richard Feynman (“a lot of fun”), Betty took a job tracking projects at the Ford Foundation, which was suddenly flush with cash after the death of Henry Ford.

Gordon finished his Ph.D. in just three years. Betty, for her part, “received a certificate then in its heyday, a ‘PhT,’ for ‘Putting Husband Through,’ bestowed on her by the wife of Caltech’s president.”

The Moores spent two years in suburban ­Maryland while Gordon worked for a military-funded research lab. This period was marked by the happy arrival of the first of their two children, but was in many other respects a lonely and unsatisfying time.

Then he received the phone call that made his career. It was physicist William Shockley, with a job offer. Shockley had worked at Bell Labs in the 1940s and played a critical part in creating the first practical transistor, a device that could replace the fragile, bulky vacuum tube used in radios, scientific instruments, and the room-sized computers of the era. The early computers were so big partly because they required thousands of vacuum tubes, and the science-fiction writers of the era imagined an upward spiral: computers that were ever smarter and therefore ever bigger—building-sized, city-sized, and beyond. The transistor would make it possible to have more powerful computers that were smaller—desk-sized, pocket-sized, and beyond.

When Shockley called Moore in 1956, the world was only just awakening to the transistor’s potential applications, and Shockley (who would win the Nobel Prize in physics later that year) wanted to make a decisive move. He was starting a new business venture out in California’s farm country, and invited Moore to help perfect and produce transistors for commercial sale.

Moore jumped at the chance, but Shockley proved to be a terrible boss, and Moore soon quit along with seven ­others—the “traitorous eight”—to start their own company with the financial backing of businessman Sherman Fairchild. Fairchild Semiconductor was where Moore first learned how state-of-the-art research must relate to ever-improving manufacturing processes. It was where he grew close partnerships with Robert Noyce, an executive and natural leader, and Andrew Grove, a brilliant manager. And it was where Moore helped Noyce realize his idea for combining multiple transistors into a single “integrated circuit”—the invention of the microchip.

Fairchild was also where he formulated Moore’s law. For a special issue of the journal Electronics in 1965, Moore wrote an article explaining why and how more and more transistors could be crammed onto a microchip without increasing prices. This would happen at a steady clip, with the number of transistors on each microchip doubling every year (a figure he would later revise to every two years).

Moore’s law is not a law of nature. It is an observation and a prediction about technical possibilities. Moore grasped that fulfilling that prediction would require leadership: a clear sense of the science and economics, disciplined collaboration between the lab and the manufacturing floor, and sometimes even the ability to bring other industry players on board. He took it as his mission to make this happen.

When, by the late 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor was becoming too unwieldy for its management structure, Moore, Noyce, and Grove quit to launch yet another company: Intel. The firm started producing new kinds of memory microchips and microprocessors. Moore shepherded his colleagues to make Moore’s law come true, and success followed success. As Intel grew to become a giant, Moore became the de facto strategist for an entire industry.

That industry was changing nearly everything, as electronics became more powerful and computer technology was adopted in more areas of life. In an uncharacteristically colorful quotation he offered a reporter in 1973, Moore put it this way: “We are really the revolutionaries in the world today—not the kids with the long hair and beards who were wrecking the schools a few years ago.”

But Moore’s revolutionary vision was not 20/20. He did foresee that computer chips would someday go into cars and dishwashers and televisions and refrigerators and countless other appliances, a process still unfolding today. But, in arguably his biggest business blunder, he considered the prospect of personal computers “something of a joke,” according to his biographers. Perhaps Moore’s highly logical approach to business—“measure, analyze, decide”—blinded him to the possibility of sheer unpredictable human creativity, and the countless novel ways computers would come to be used.

By Moore’s own admission, his is a “much colder” and less charismatic personality than that of, say, the late Steve Jobs. Indeed, Moore’s Law is jam-packed with descriptions of the man’s introversion and passivity. On the whole, this was a boon for the workplace and for the industry. “I don’t know of one occasion that he lost his cool,” a longtime Intel colleague says. “He provided the emotional stability for the company.”

Nor did Moore’s stolidity apparently cause many problems on the home front. There are several jarring descriptions and personal anecdotes in Moore’s Law—as when Betty Moore says that Gordon “doesn’t like human emotions,” or when their older son, Ken, says the family operates “like we’re a little corporation.” But ­Gordon’s coolness did not prevent him from enjoying a long and strong marriage with Betty, and it provided a calm center for a family that bonded over hiking, fishing, and other outdoor activities.

The Moores began their philanthropy as a very personal, even somewhat ­haphazard undertaking. In the 1970s, ­Gordon and Betty would stuff into a drawer all the appeals for support they received. At year’s end, according to Ken, Gordon “would pull them all out and spread them out across the family room and see what was there.” This annual “Santa Claus philanthropy” involved no follow-up reports or accountability; it was entirely informal.

In 1986, they established the Moore Family Foundation to handle their giving. Managed by their younger son, Steve, this foundation has assets in the range of tens of millions of dollars. It has been a vehicle for many grants in the San Francisco Bay area, especially related to quality of life and environmental conservation. “Every place I liked was changing,” Gordon, the ­outdoorsman, told his biographers. “All the naturalness was disappearing.”

Projects on a bigger scale have been the focus of a second philanthropy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, that they created in 2000, after the value of Intel’s stock had grown so much that Gordon became the fifth-wealthiest individual in America. This larger foundation, where Ken works as chief program officer, got off to a rough start. Some of the very traits that made ­Gordon’s career and personal life stable and ­successful—his passivity and his insistence on the supremacy of method—left the staff floundering. “The great silicon revolutionary could provide no specifics on how to spend his money,” his biographers write. And while an emphasis on metrics was essential in the semiconductor industry, it wasn’t as easily translated to the grantmaking process. The staff initially felt pressured to support projects that were strictly quantifiable, like one to preserve salmon in the Pacific. “The real reason we picked salmon,” admitted the foundation’s first president, “is that we can count them.”

Notwithstanding these early difficulties, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which today has over $6 billion in assets, has gone on to support some projects of extraordinary scope. It has made huge grants to Gordon’s alma mater Caltech, totaling $300 million over a decade (paired with another $300 million from Gordon and Betty’s personal funds); these funds helped the institute move to the vanguard of several scientific fields where it previously had only a small presence. The foundation has also supported efforts to improve training and standards for nursing, as well as other aspects of patient care—subjects of great interest to Betty. And it has paid for a wide range of science projects, including the Thirty Meter Telescope, the world’s most powerful optical telescope. (See panorama in "The Power of Science Philanthropy.") Although the telescope was planned for Hawaii, where the Moores now live, its future there is in doubt: construction was halted in late 2015 following a decision in a lawsuit brought by native Hawaiians and environmentalists. “The Thirty Meter Telescope represents the next generation of optical telescopes and will enable astronomers to see further into our universe and reach back toward the beginning of time,” the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s president, Dr. Harvey Fineberg, tells Philanthropy. “We hope it will prove possible to construct the telescope in Hawaii. At the same time, alternate locations are being evaluated.”

The foundation has also supported a host of environmental projects. Most ambitiously, it has since 2001 poured over $350 million into protecting the Andes-Amazon region, where deforestation has been a longstanding and very complicated problem. This funding has helped to conserve and bring under “sustainable management” some 650,000 square miles of rainforests and other ecosystems—an area four times the size of California—in Brazil and other South American countries. In North America, the foundation has funded many projects related to oceans and marine life, focusing especially on reducing ­overfishing in and improving management of coastal ecosystems. And over the course of several years the foundation gave more than $300 million in grants to the environmental group Conservation International, transforming it from a relatively small organization to one with a variety of international projects.

Moore has said he wants his philanthropic endeavors to improve life not just now but 10,000 years from now. On its face, this notion seems absurd. We can’t even see a century into the future; for that matter, we don’t even know whether something as predictable as Moore’s law will peter out in the next decade. What could we possibly do today that might last ten millennia?

And yet, the work of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation suggests two ways to think about such long horizons. The first is fundamentally humble: ensure that something that exists now will exist tomorrow and the next day and the next. The second is fundamentally extreme: discover or invent ­something new, something that will lastingly alter the trajectory of human existence. It is fitting that both these approaches should arise from the wishes and worldview of the conservative radical Gordon Moore.

Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.