The Story of Silicon Valley Giant Gordon Moore, Father of Moore’s Law

March 24, 2023 by Tyler Charboneau

While Gordon Moore is best known for his transistor scaling theory, he also devoted his life to other semiconductor breakthroughs—like the integrated circuit—along with philanthropic pursuits.

Today, Intel shared the sad news that Gordon Moore has passed away at age 94.

From the birth of Intel to the rise of Moore’s law, this electrical-engineering titan left an indelible mark on the world of technology. All About Circuits even named our podcast, Moore's Lobby, after him.


Gordon Moore

Gordon Moore. Image used courtesy of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

What piqued Gordon Moore’s interests, and how did his career give rise to Silicon Valley and a revolutionary transistor theory?


It All Began With a Chemistry Set

Born on January 3rd, 1929 in San Francisco, California, Gordon Moore’s life fittingly began in today’s Silicon Valley—a global nucleus for technological innovation. Moore’s family soon moved to nearby Redwood City, where a chance encounter with a neighbor’s chemistry set ignited a fervent interest in the subject. Moore ran with this fascination and carried it through college

Accordingly, he earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. This paved the way for Moore to earn his 1954 Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It was clear that he possessed a strong interest in chemistry, physics, and materials science. Not long thereafter, Moore’s professional career would be off to a rather prestigious start. 


Moore's Headlong Dive Into Silicon Valley

While the first chapter of Gordon Moore’s career was indeed noteworthy, it was also somewhat turbulent by his account. He quickly gained employment at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Here, Moore would embark on a litany of research tasks—diving deeply into the U.S. Navy’s solid rocket propellants, which were pivotal within antiaircraft missiles. 

However, Moore’s laboratory stint was short-lived. Citing a lack of passion in his research endeavors, Moore was soon intrinsically driven to return to California. He needed a fresh start and a shift in focus to reinvigorate his career. His 1956 homecoming would thrust him into the electrical-engineering realm. 

Where better to land than the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory? The man who lent his name to the company, William Shockley, had just opened the facility in Palo Alto. This was a mere 20 minutes from Moore's childhood home. Shockley himself was a co-inventor of the transistor and jointly received a Nobel Prize for this engineering feat. 


Shockley's Nobel Prize award

A group of key engineers from Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, including Moore, raise a toast to Shockley's Nobel Prize award. Image used courtesy of the Computer History Museum

Throughout his year and a half there, Moore assisted in forming new manufacturing methods for silicon-based chips. This involved a process called doping—which introduces necessary impurities into otherwise-pure silicon. Though it may sound counterintuitive, these dopant materials are necessary for creating regions with electron shortages and surpluses. That difference in charge transforms a transistor into a functional switch. 

Accordingly, Moore was pivotal in finding impurity levels and compounds to achieve optimal performance. Most notably, he developed solid-state processes for diffusing those dopants into raw wafers. This helped make these components viable in a number of upcoming applications. 


A Shockley Departure and the Beginnings of Fairchild

While Shockley Labs was churning out leading semiconductor technology of the day, Moore and a number of his colleagues bemoaned the micromanagement suffered under William Shockley. This so-called "Traitorous Eight" included Moore and seven other young scientists. The Shockley Labs environment was stifling—eventually leading the group to break away and form their own company. With Fairchild Camera and Instrument’s backing, the group launched Fairchild Semiconductor. Moore rose rapidly to become a principal technologist and manager internally.

Moore’s work piggybacked off of his research at Shockley, while introducing new materials science into the mix. He defined Fairchild’s diffusion processes and built furnaces tailor-made for the job. Later, his work encompassed transistor-contact manufacturing—and he soon realized that aluminum paired exceptionally well with silicon. In the world of scaled manufacturing, aluminum was treasured for its friendly price point, abundance, and performance. 

The following advancements also stemmed from Moore’s time with Fairchild: 

  • Planar processes for semiconductor circuit printing
  • The introduction of the first integrated circuit in 1961, made possible by smooth silicon dioxide surfaces
  • Notable progress toward introducing the first metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET)


Fairchild Semiconductor's first IC

Fairchild Semiconductor's first IC included four transistors. Image used courtesy of Computer History Museum

The team’s progress within Fairchild’s walls supported decades of innovations thereafter. Moore’s leadership as director of research and development was essential in facilitating this. Accordingly, engineers still incorporate MOSFET technology within most modern chips today. 


Intel—and a Legendary Law—are Born

1965 brought with it a powerful prediction from Gordon Moore, which became known as Moore’s law. Still cited today, the law states that the transistor density within a given area of silicon would double each year. This was both an acknowledgment of the existing state of microchip development and a developmental goal. He theorized that computing power would increase annually and grow cheaper in the process. 

Moore amended this rule a decade later. Accordingly, he shared that transistor counts would instead double every two years; he believed that while early improvements are easier to make, later advancements tend to arrive more gradually.


Moore's law

Depiction of the trajectory of Moore's law between 1971 and 2010. Image used courtesy of Computer History Museum

Moore’s law arose during his time at Fairchild. Unfortunately, developmental challenges had started to impact Fairchild during the twilight of Moore’s employment. MOS-based innovations weren’t translating well from the lab to the fab. Additionally, management shakeups were beginning to undermine Moore’s overall strategy.

It was clear that chip production was both an art and a science: sadly, upper management didn’t foster this balance effectively. It dawned on Moore and colleague Robert Noyce that relocating to Santa Clara—to create a company truly their own—was the way forward. They’d name that company Intel. 

Founded in 1968, Intel’s chief goal was scaled chipset production. This would require immense knowledge in design, manufacturing, and supply-chain management. Additionally, MOS designs would be the headlining technology. Moore and his leadership team helped vault Intel’s memory architecture into prominence throughout the company’s early years. Competitor influence later convinced Moore’s company to change course. Intel instead began focusing on microprocessors—the computational heart of modern electronics.

In the decades following, Intel further improved these chips not only in terms of raw performance but also in thermal performance, transistor density, power efficiency, and compactness. “Intel Inside” became a mainstay marketing slogan in the PC (and Mac) world.

Although competition is much fiercer today, Intel still commands 75% of the global processor market share. Much of this ubiquity can be traced to Moore’s influence over the years. 


Moore's Lasting Impact on Engineering and the World

After serving for nearly two decades at Intel’s helm as executive vice president and CEO, Gordon Moore finally stepped down in 1987. He became chairman of the board emeritus in 1997—eventually retiring from that appointment in 2006

However, Moore wasn’t single-threaded during this period. He and his wife, Betty, poured their time into philanthropic pursuits from the late 1990s onward; the duo co-founded the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2000. They’ve since been recognized as one of California’s most generous charitable entities. Since its founding, the Foundation has supported numerous projects in science, technology, conservation, and education. 


Intel building

Gordon Moore (right) and Robert Noyce stand in front of an Intel building in Santa Clara, California (1970). Image used courtesy of Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Gordon Moore’s later life was defined by recognition. He’s received the following honors over the course of several years: 

  • Othmer Gold Medal from the then Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2001
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002
  • Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkins Medal in 2004—a group which later created the Gordon E. Moore Medal in his honor 
  • Longstanding membership in the National Academy of Engineering
  • Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Moore’s life was dotted with a number of accomplishments both personal and professional. Throughout his life, he’d devoted countless hours to advancing microprocessors and boosting their ubiquity. Moore’s influence continues to be felt today—especially within the engineering community.