Gordon Moore Is Still Chipping Away
He has been credited with booming economic growth, the national rise in productivity, the falling cost of computers, and the rapidly rising cost of chip production. Yet the person behind Moore's Law, Gordon Moore, is a soft-spoken man of 71 who loves fishing in remote Pacific islands like Vanuatu, Midway, and Bikini. About once a week, this billionaire puts on a tie and goes to his cubicle at the Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters of Intel, the company he co-founded in 1968, where he still wears an employee photo I.D. clipped to his pocket.
"Moore's Law has been the name given to everything that changes exponentially in the industry. It used to grate on me. It wasn't a law in any real respect," he says. But now that he's retired, he's more comfortable with the attention. "If Gore invented the Internet, I invented the exponential," he jokes, eyes twinkling.
Moore grew up in the San Francisco area when silicon chips were unknown. After getting his Ph.D. in chemistry and physics from Caltech in 1954, he went to work for William Shockley, who later won the Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the transistor. Moore met Robert Noyce that year, and the two left in 1957 to found Fairchild Semiconductor, where Noyce developed the integrated circuit.
While running the lab there, Moore was asked to write an article for Electronics magazine in 1965. To illustrate his main point, that integrated circuits would one day become plentiful and cheap, he looked at the rapid growth in the number of components squeezed on a chip--16 was state of the art then--and noticed that the number had been doubling every year. At that rate, he predicted, the industry could cram 65,000 transistors on a chip by 1975--unthinkable then.
Prophecy fulfilled. No law of physics underlies Moore's Law. It was merely a prediction, based on observation. But as companies rushed to keep ahead, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Intel, founded by Noyce and Moore in 1968, led the industry in doubling chip complexity at that exponential rate. In 1975, the year Moore became Intel's CEO, he revised his prediction, saying the growth would double every two years. And it did just that during Moore's 12 years as Intel's CEO, 10 subsequent years as chairman, and three years as chairman emeritus. Some observers have taken the average over the years and said Moore's Law refers to a doubling every 18 months.
Moore is not ready to revise his law again. But he sees the same physical limit that worries others. He figures the current rate will continue at least 10 years--three generations in the chip industry. But after that, he expects the doubling time will rise to every four or five years. "One of these days, we will lose the ability to make things smaller," he concedes. "It'll change some of the dynamics of the industry. But it's not the end of progress, as some have tried to paint it."
This story appears in the July 10, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.