Magazine article Management Today

Mega Memories Are Made of This

Magazine article Management Today

Mega Memories Are Made of This

Article excerpt

Who could have predicted that anything so tiny as the microchip, first invented in the 1950s, would now be underpinning every computer in the world?

They got it wrong: in the 1950s, science fiction writers and futurologists confidently predicted that, by now, we'd be travelling regularly if not to the stars, at least to nearby planets and that our space ships would have to be big. Not only because (obviously) bigger was better but because we'd have to take our computers with us and all those vacuum tubes would take up a lot of space. Of course, the future has proved much smaller and rather less romantic than envisaged: a Psion organiser is more powerful than the computers they dreamt of and the next man on the moon will probably be a Japanese tourist.

What they failed to foresee was the invention and subsequent breakneck development of the microchip, which began at Shockley Semiconductor in California in the late 1950s. In 1956, a PhD graduate, Gordon Moore, joined the company, where he met Robert Noyce, an MIT graduate. Along with their fellow scientists, they were messing around with silicon, trying to go beyond the transistor, in whose invention the eponymous Mr Shockley had played a role. But Shockley was, by all accounts, something of a shocker to work for and a disgruntled group including Noyce and Moore left the company to set up on their own.

They turned to Arthur Rock, a San Francisco-based merchant banker, who arranged a meeting with the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Company. It was sufficiently interested to set up a division called Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957. Two years on, Noyce, who is credited as the inventor of the chip, managed to put an array of transistors on a piece of silicon. This was the first, very rudimentary chip and it went down well. Before long, the Fairchild chips were usurping the clumsy mechanical switches in computers. But Moore saw far more for the invention, especially in the potential to cram vast numbers of transistors on the chip. In 1963, he made his famous prediction that the power of the chip would double every 18 months.

Meanwhile, a young Hungarian PhD from the University of California joined the outfit as Moore's assistant. His name was Andy Grove. Fortune smiled on Fairchild and, as silicon became the switch of choice, the company's turnover rose to $130 million. All was not as rosy as the figures,' however. Noyce and Moore wanted to investigate areas of interest to them, principally memory. …

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