20 June 2016

Iowa, Pigs, Microchips, and Founding Silicon Valley

Last night I was reading the The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin which tells the story of Robert Noyce.

Noyce, also known as “The Mayor of Silicon Valley”, was credited with the invention of the microchip, cofounding Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Together with Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, they created the culture and economic force that Silicon Valley became.

Personal Significance

Besides the obvious reason of wanting to read more about Noyce because he set the foundation for my career of choice, I was also interested because he was born in Iowa like myself.

It may seem insignificant but there’s something fantastic when reading about an incredible figure that came from a similar upbringing. We both lived in small towns that were separated by only a three hour drive and half a century in time.

The Story

To set the stage, this story took place when Robert Noyce was still an undergrad living in Iowa attending Grinnell College.

Here’s the story which starts on page 21:

Every spring and fall, each hall hosted a party. In their zeal to create the most spectacular party – the better the celebration, the larger the pool of potential dates – residents often enhanced the décor with a few bales of hay or a stack of lumber “borrowed” from unsuspecting farmers or townfolk.

Noyce lived in Clark Hall, which decided upon a Hawaiian luau theme for its spring house party a few weeks before the end of his junior year. Since Noyce knew the town of Grinnell especially well, he was assigned the task of liberating a young pig to be roasted upon a realistic looking spit.

[Noyce and his partner in crime] walked across the golf course behind the campus, grabbed a suckling pig, and ran with it back to Clark Hall. His housemates decided to butcher the piglet in a third-floor shower. A frantically squealing animal, intoxicated young men with knives – the ruckus was such that students all over campus immediately knew something untoward was happening in Clark Hall. The administration, however, did not hear about it until the next day, when Noyce and his housemate repented and returned to the farm with an offer to pay for the pig, whose absence had not yet been noticed.

It quickly became apparent that Noyce had not chosen a good farm to target. The farmer was the mayor of Grinnell, a no-nonsense man given to motivating his constituents through mild intimidation.

Noyce’s previous exploits […] had been dismissed as boys-will-be-boys tomfoolery. Stealing a pig was a different matter entirely. It crossed the line Noyce had skirted throughout his high school years, for as the letter the dean sent home to Ralph and Harriet Noyce explained, “In the agricultural state of Iowa, stealing a domestic animal is a felony which carries a minimum penalty of a year in prison and a fine of one thousand dollars.” A prize pig could easily sell for $1,000, nearly three times Noyce’s annual college tuition.

Grant Gale [Noyce’s physics professor] and Grinnell College president Stevens were in a frenzy. Even without a criminal conviction, expulsion alone would have meant the end of the boys’ education. In 1948 no school would have accepted a student expelled from another, and Gale in particular could not bear the prospect of “losing Bob.” The two college representatives, both longtime residents of Grinnell and friends of the Noyces, brokered a compromise in which the college would compensate the farmer for his pig, and no charges would be pressed. The boys would be allowed to finish the few remaining days of their junior year but were suspended for the first semester of their senior year.

A Sound of Thunder

There are an infinite number of butterflies that can change history. This one stuck out at me because it is so Iowan, yet ties together two completely different parts of American history: the agrarian one and the current technological one.

It’s probably safe to say that if Robert Noyce hadn’t graduated from Grinnell College, went to graduate school at MIT, then to work with William Shockley with the knowledge and expertise that he had in transistors, that Silicon Valley either would have been delayed or at least it would look different than it does today.

I loved this story and the implication it could have had on the future if a grumpy mayor had gotten his way. It’s a quirky little part of history that reminded me of technology, Silicon Valley, and the state that I never felt apart of yet still love.

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