Science history: Moore’s law is turning 55
Gordon Moore was a driving force behind silicon chip technology.
By Jeff Glorfeld
It doesn’t require a background in computer science, or even a strong interest in technology, to have at least a passing familiarity with the axiom known as Moore’s law, which has been with us now for nearly 55 years.
The ideas that came to be called law were set down in an article in the 19 April 1965 edition of Electronics magazine.
The article’s author, Gordon Moore, was at the time director of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor, a company he’d co-founded in 1957.
In a 2005 interview, Moore explains how the article came about.
“This was the early days of the integrated circuit; we were just learning to put a few components on a chip. I was given the chore of predicting what would happen in silicon components in the next 10 years for the 35th anniversary edition of Electronics magazine.”
The Techopedia.com website defined Moore’s law thus in 2012: “The number of transistors placed in an integrated circuit or chip doubles approximately every two years.”
An unattributed website called Mooreslaw.org calls this “the simplified version” of the law: “Processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers, will double every two years.”
David Rotman, writing in the 24 February 2020 issue of MIT Technology Review, says Moore’s 1965 forecast, “that the number of components on an integrated circuit would double every year until it reached an astonishing 65,000 by 1975, is the greatest technological prediction of the last half-century.
“When it proved correct in 1975, he revised what has become known as Moore’s law to a doubling of transistors on a chip every two years. Since then, his prediction has defined the trajectory of technology and, in many ways, of progress itself.”
Moore was born and raised near San Francisco, California, on 3 January 1929, in the midst of what would become known as Silicon Valley, the global technology epicentre. He studied chemistry and physics at university, receiving a PhD in chemistry in 1954.
Moore went to work as a researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, but in 1956 he jumped at the opportunity to return to California when Nobel prize-winning physicist and transistor pioneer William Shockley formed a new company, Shockley Semiconductor - “the company that gave birth to California’s Silicon Valley”, says Sciencehistory.org.
Shockley, however, although a brilliant scientist, was an abysmal manager, and less than a year later Moore and seven of his colleagues, who would become known as “the Traitorous Eight”, formed their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor, with backing from the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Co.
Moore’s specialty was in developing processes for diffusing impurities, or dopants, into silicon, allowing it to be formed into electronic switches or other devices. He also worked on manufacturing processes for creating transistor contacts.
Moore and Noyce left Fairchild in 1968 and formed NM Electronics, which later became Intel Corp, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of semiconductors.
David Rotman says Moore’s 1965 argument was an economic one.
As Fairchild’s R&D director, he saw “that with these new integrated circuits, ‘the cost per component is nearly inversely proportional to the number of components’. Moore also saw that there was plenty of room for engineering advances to increase the number of transistors you could affordably and reliably put on a chip.”
Apart from the predictions that led his friend, Carver Mead, professor emeritus of engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology, to proclaim Moore’s Law, Moore in 1965 also foresaw a time when “integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers, or at least terminals connected to a central computer, automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment.
“The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today. Computers will be more powerful, and will be organised in completely different ways.”
Moore today serves as Intel’s chairman emeritus, and he and his wife, Betty, are generous contributors to several charitable and environmental protection causes.