As far as primary-school me in the US was concerned, the name of computing pioneer Gordon Moore, who died last week at the grand age of 94, meant nothing.
Contrast that to today, where even small children know the names of so many tech figures, many elevated to icons. At the same age as I was when Moore cofounded Intel, my nephew dressed up as Steve Jobs for his school’s ‘dress as a hero’ day (and yes, he was pretty adorable in a black mock turtleneck, jeans and round wire-rim glasses, carefully carrying an iPhone).
Moore came up with his famous Moore’s Law around the time I’d started kindergarten in Palo Alto, then a small city no one beyond the San Francisco area ever seemed to have heard of. For years, I explained Palo Alto’s location by noting Stanford University was there. The quiet city wasn’t yet stuffed full of household-name tech and internet companies.
I was in third grade by 1968, when Moore would co-found one of the most powerful companies of all time, Intel, just a few miles to the south in Mountain View. Oh yes, I and everyone in my class knew all about computers, because there was one that talked on the new-ish TV series Star Trek, which I liked but one of my best friend’s parents forbade in her house because it was “too violent”. And, with NASA also just down the road in Mountain View, we knew computers were important for that early era of real rather than fictional space exploration, shortly to produce the first moon landing.
So, it’s not as if kids of that era were oblivious to the new industry developing around them in a region nobody at all referred to back then as Silicon Valley. Even I was aware that the blocky, flat-roofed buildings springing up around Santa Clara and San Jose had something to do with electronics. The big fruit orchards with their friendly roadside fruit stands enticing passing motorists with apricots and cherries were being obliterated by these new businesses.
But when it came to electronics and computing, the only actual names most people knew were those of (Bill) Hewlett and (David) Packard. My father – a doctor, not an engineer – always admiringly pointed out HP’s huge offices when we drove past them.
And yet, Intel forerunner Fairchild Semiconductor, another Moore co-founded company, was already more important in terms of industry advances, and would be far more impactful in the overall history of computing, than venerable HP. Semiconductors would lead the way to microprocessors and cheap, ubiquitous microchips of then-barely fathomable power.
Many involved with Fairchild would split off to found the pivotal companies of a dawning computing era my generation of Palo Alto children were at once both oblivious to – what in the world was silicon? – and yet fully anticipating, because space exploration and sentient computers filled our news-cycle days and TV evenings, and seemed just around the corner.
Moore’s astute insight that computing power would grow exponentially, doubling about every two years, as costs simultaneously dropped, would become Moore’s Law, the shaping framework for innovation and a driving economic force of the past half century. Some have posited the law might have been more self-fulfilling than self-evident, because it threw the on-switch for an entirely new industry, backed by a nascent valley venture capital infrastructure. Entrepreneurs, inventors and investors were excited by the challenges of making the law manifest, so perhaps they drove it, rather than the other way around.
However, that roster of early names and early pioneers remains mostly unknown now to any but those with a particular interest in computing history. A decade ago, my mother gave me a copy of a most wonderful collection of photographs taken in the 1970s and 80s, called Portraits of Success: Impressions of Silicon Valley Pioneers, by Carolyn Geddes. There are over 60 portraits, and Moore is there, of course. I’d venture most people under 30 today, the born-digital generation, would only recognise Steve Jobs, and perhaps have heard of the surnames of a handful of others.
What has changed in subsequent years, to make so many of today’s tech figures household names? The visibility shift that happened between the 60s to the 80s-onwards was that – as Moore predicted – technology was becoming normalised, affordable, integrated into daily life and accessible to homes and businesses. When I was eight, technology and computing was something mysterious and untouchable that happened at NASA. By the time my nephew was eight, a small child could carry the computing power of 1960′s NASA in his small palm. Kids of the 1990s and 2000s didn’t know Moore, but immediately recognised Jobs and Gates.
Technology’s an ultra-hip industry now, and many company founders and leaders come with better celebrity trappings than rock stars or actors, like vast wealth and associations with very cool things (why, you can even own your space-exploration company nowadays). And yet, I can’t help feeling something seems sadly lacking in a world where a Musk is better known than a Moore.