Moore’s Law sprung from backyard bombs

If you’re shopping for Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore this holiday season, check out eBay for a vintage chemistry set.

“You can’t get that stuff anymore,” Moore lamented Thursday night during an event in Mountain View, California, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Moore’s Law. He recounted his unique tale of how a young boy fascinated by homemade chemical explosions grew up to help create an industry that has changed the world.

In 1965, Moore penned an article for Electronics Magazine that set the course for the future development of the semiconductor industry, although he had no idea at the time how pervasive Moore’s Law would become.

In that article, Moore predicted that integrated circuit manufacturers would be able double the number of transistors on a chip every year. Ten years later, he refined that prediction to every two years, a trend that has continued to this day with the efforts of chip designers at Intel and other semiconductor companies.

However, a more short-term concern prompted the famous Electronics article. At the time, Moore was working for Fairchild Semiconductor, and trying to convince potential customers of these newfangled integrated circuits that computing power would not always be so expensive.

“I never had any idea that [the article] was going to be so precise,” Moore said. He was merely trying to plant the idea that by putting more and more components onto a single chip, Fairchild could create cheap but powerful electronics devices.

“I wasn’t throwing down a gauntlet, I was trying to change the customer’s mind. A lot of these things would have happened anyhow,” Moore said, downplaying his role in the creation of the semiconductor industry.

Moore was joined on stage at the Computer History Museum by Carver Mead, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who is credited with inventing the term “Moore’s Law.” Mead is the Gordon and Betty Moore professor of engineering and applied science, emeritus, at CalTech in Pasadena, California.

Mead encouraged Moore to share some early childhood stories that helped illustrate his natural scientific curiosity. Moore believes he wrecked his hearing through his passion for creating loud but harmless explosions with the materials found in chemistry sets.

“A couple of ounces of dynamite makes for a great firecracker,” Moore joked. From nitroglycerin to homemade rockets, Moore’s childhood was shaped by scientific exploration that is all too rare today, according to both men.

Several audience members asked Moore and Mead what they thought about the current state of science education in the U.S. Intel has long lobbied the U.S. government for increased funding of science and math education, believing that the current educational system will not allow the U.S. to maintain an edge in technology development.

Mead agreed that the state of U.S. science education was a pressing concern, and that the educational problem is commingled with U.S. immigration policy.

He proposed that foreign students that come to the U.S. to earn an advanced degree should be granted a green card right after graduation.

Most foreign graduate students hold temporary visas permitting them to live in the U.S., and are forced to return to their home countries after graduation, he said.

For his part, Moore advised young scientists to focus on software, rather than trying to enter the enormously expensive chip industry.

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