On the anniversary of his death, President Kennedy is being widely remembered for his role in launching the U.S. drive to put a man on the moon. But did you know he helped launch Silicon Valley, too?
The space race played an integral part in launching the U.S. microchip industry, which gave California’s Silicon Valley its name.
“Every American in 1969 was watching those black and white televisions “¦ with a sense of pride and awe,” said Leslie Berlin, author of The Man Behind the Microchip, referring to the moon landing. “Microchip engineers had another layer of pride knowing their work had made it all possible.”
To understand the connection requires some history. On April 15, 1961, Robert Noyce received a patent for an integrated circuit made with silicon. The microchip cost about $120 when it first came to market.
According to T.D. Reid’s book The Chip, it was as if Noyce had invented a station wagon that could travel 500 mph but cost $150,000. It was a technological feat, but few industries wanted or needed it. Without a market to drive down the price, the future of microchips would be stuck in neutral.
On May 27, 1961, fate stepped in. In an address to Congress, Kennedy committed the nation to putting a man on the moon, and bringing him back to Earth, by the end of the decade. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” he said.
At the time of his declaration, the U.S.’s greatest accomplishment in space was Alan Shepard’s 302-mile suborbital flight. The distance of a round-trip journey to the moon would be nearly 488,000 miles, or roughly 1,615 times the distance of Shepard’s flight.
The key word in Kennedy’s address is expensive. But no price was too high for Congress in the space race with the Soviet Union. The customers desperately needed by Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce’s company, had arrived. The first contract granted after Kennedy’s speech was for microchips for NASA’s Apollo guidance computer.
“The state-of-the-art chips were the silicon chips, and the reason they were so desirable was their durability,” Berlin said. “They could withstand extremes of temperature and pressure and almost any kind of stress imaginable; they could get through very reliably.”
In 1964, government sales were almost the entire market for microchips. As a result, the price of integrated circuits dropped — from $120 to roughly $25 between 1961 and 1971 — and demand soared.
It was during the end of this period, in 1968, that Noyce left Fairchild to found Intel with Gordon Moore, whose famous observation that the capacity of microchips doubles approximately every two years became known as Moore’s Law.
In 1969, Kennedy’s vision was realized when the first American landed on the moon. And the electronics industry was booming.
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