Gordon Moore’s Next Act

The man behind Moore’s Law is tackling biodiversity, the future of engineering education, and the secrets of the galaxies

Gordon E. Moore, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Intel Corp., the world’s 288th ­richest man, and the eponymous soothsayer of one of ­technology’s most famous “laws,” sits across from me, eating a turkey sandwich.

He’s been interviewed hundreds, maybe ­thousands of times by the likes of me. So I’m kind of at a loss for questions that won’t bore him. “What would you like your legacy to the world to be?” I finally ask.

“Anything,” he says, shaking his head ruefully, “but Moore’s Law.”

I don’t have the heart to tell him how unlikely that’s going to be. People who couldn’t tell you exactly what DRAM does have heard of Moore’s Law.

Moore was a 36-year-old research physicist at Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. when he wrote his famous forecast, in the 35th anniversary issue of Electronics magazine. He predicted that the number of transistors manufacturers would be able to put on a chip would double every year. At the time, a state-of-the-art chip had about 50 transistors. In 1975, Moore revised the doubling period to two years, thinking that the pattern would last at most a decade longer. To his surprise, it still holds true today, as a new Intel chip, code-named Tukwila, hits the market with 2 billion transistors.

He’s not entirely averse to the renown the brash prediction has conferred, mind you. “I have to admit,” he says with a sheepish grin, “a while back I Googled Murphy’s Law and Moore’s Law, and Moore’s has twice as many references as Murphy’s.”

Nevertheless, he’d prefer to be remembered as one of the people who started the semiconductor industry, a niche business when he got involved, now generating some US $300 billion in annual sales worldwide. There’s no disputing his important roles. He helped develop early silicon transistors at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, cofounded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957, leading the team that produced the first high-­frequency silicon transistor, supervised the development of the metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) process, and created Intel in 1968 with Robert Noyce, building it into an empire with profits of $7 billion a year by the time he retired.

He also helped train an entire cadre of people now running vast parts of the industry. “Gordon was the only boss I ever had,” says Andy Grove, to whom Moore turned over Intel’s chairmanship in 1997. “He’s one of the very few people who shaped my knowledge and understanding and approach as a scientist and a manager. Without Gordon, I would not be me.”

It’s for all those accomplishments, and more, that he’s receiving this year’s IEEE Medal of Honor.

But since his retirement from a day-to-day role at Intel, he has been spending his billions in a carefully crafted program of technology- and science-­oriented philanthropy that is creating a legacy of its own. As he did half a century ago in ­electronics, Moore is focusing on big problems. Through the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, he and his wife of 57 years are trying to preserve the world’s bio­diversity, reinvent engineering education, and uncover the secrets of the galaxies.

“When history looks back,” says his son Kenneth, “my dad’s most important legacy will probably be the foundation. Because while Fairchild and Intel were exceptional companies and important for their time, the foundation may be what really helps the world.”

Moore didn’t select the foundation’s goals haphazardly. He famously calls himself an “accidental entrepreneur,” explaining that, had he not been repulsed by William Shockley’s abrasive behavior, he would have remained contentedly in the laboratories of Shockley Semiconductor instead of plunging into the stress and risk of managing the start-up Fairchild. Moore’s steps into philanthropy, however, have been far more deliberately planned and tie into deep passions.

During the dot-com bubble, Intel’s valuation soared to half a trillion dollars, pushing Moore’s personal wealth to $24 billion. “I had sold essentially none of my Intel stock from the beginning,” he says. And yet he never cosseted himself. To this day he takes his own clothes to the dry cleaners, and until recently he flew coach class.

Moore remained involved with Intel until last year while shifting steadily toward his philanthropic activities. He already had a family foundation, started with an endowment of about $20 million in 1986. That foundation now supports causes related to ocean conservation and research, including an ocean research station in French Polynesia and work at the Scripps Research Institute and at the Ocean Conservancy.

In the late 1990s he decided to plow half of the value of his Intel stock into a new charitable foundation. But he didn’t want to simply pick someone with philanthropic experience and turn over the money; he wanted this to be a business, run by a businessman.

Finding the right person to lead the nonprofit, even one so well funded, wasn’t easy. Then Bank of America Corp. considered but opted not to hire Lewis Coleman for the bank’s CEO slot. Coleman, who was then chairman of Montgomery Securities, decided he wanted to change direction in his career, and before long, he found himself talking to Moore. Moore hired Coleman, and the Moore Foundation incorporated in September of 2000.

By then the tech bubble had started to burst. Recalls Kenneth, a former semiconductor industry executive who is now director of evaluation and information technology for the foundation, “The day Dad and Lew signed the papers on an airplane, the endowment was worth $11 billion. The day the foundation actually started it was worth $5.8 billion. The next day it was down to $5 billion.” Today it’s stable at about $6 billion.

The Moore Foundation has 80 or so employees, and it gives away $300 million annually. Like an entrepreneurial business, the organization creates its projects, writes business plans, and then gives grants to people who will carry out those efforts. It does not consider unsolicited proposals.

The foundation made its first grant shortly after incorporating: $261.2 million to Conservation International, in Arlington, Va., a group that buys up open spaces for preservation and monitors biodiversity around the world. It was the largest single donation ever made in the field of conservation.

Moore has long had a fondness for the far-flung corners of the world. He and his wife have spent most of their vacations in some of the world’s most remote places, as far from technology and civilization as possible. More often than not during these trips, Moore indulges another passion: fishing. He’s fished on the islands of Bikini, Midway, and Vanuatu, on the lonely northwestern coast of Costa Rica, and on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He’s toured virgin wetlands, forests, and grasslands in Brazil’s Pantanal region, the Amazon rain forest, and the island of New Guinea. But he says, for the most part, whenever he’s gone back to one of these favorite spots 10 or so years later, the magic is gone: forests have been clear cut, fish wiped out, grasslands paved over. Sometimes he finds hotels and golf courses where previously there were spectacular ecosystems and untouched natural beauty. “It’s getting harder and harder to find a really remote place,” he says wistfully.

Through Conservation International, Moore Foundation funds are supporting an effort to inventory all nonmicrobial life on the French Polynesian island of Moorea, create genetic markers for each species, and make that information available publicly in a database. The group is also expanding the size of the protected area in the Amazon Basin and adjacent forests.

The foundation is funding other organizations that are working to protect marine ecosystems in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Those projects include helping improve fisheries management in British Columbia, New England, and the California Current, which runs from western Canada to Baja California. Other efforts aim to protect dwindling wild salmon habitats in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, where Moore once fished among the bears, as well as in Alaska and northern British Columbia.

The California Institute of Technology, Moore’s alma mater, has also benefited handsomely. Early on, the Moore Foundation committed $300 million to Caltech; Moore chipped in another $300 million out of his personal holdings. It’s a lot of money for a school with approximately 2100 students.

“Well,” Moore says, “it’ll take a lot for them to continue to have the influence they’ve had in the past.” The small class size means a small alumni body, he reasons, and therefore fewer resources to tap when it needs to upgrade its facilities or hire a superstar researcher.

Caltech, Moore says, has a unique role in educating engineers and scientists. It’s a place where theoretical physicists sit down with electrical engineers at lunch. The $600 million has bought, among other things, a bank of state-of-the-art MRI machines for brain-function analysis as well as lasers and other optics for a new center for ultrafast science. Tens of millions of dollars are going toward creating an international tectonic observatory.

Moore’s other great passion, after fishing and wildlife conservation, is astronomy. New discoveries in science are more likely to come from observations of the universe than from doing experiments on Earth, he says. “They’ll enable us to understand where we came from and how truly insignificant we are,” he adds.

So he’s helping fund the world’s first optical telescope with a 30-meter-diameter mirror. Moore’s foundation has committed $200 million to the project, which is a joint venture of Caltech and the University of California. It will be the largest optical-infrared telescope in the world, with nine times the light-gathering power of the 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the Gran Telescopio Canarias in Spain, which are now the world’s biggest. It will also have an advanced adaptive optics system. Six laser beams will create luminous spots high in the upper atmosphere; these will serve as reference points, allowing the system to compensate for the atmospheric blurring of starlight. Moore expects to be closely involved in the project because the telescope is probably going to be built on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, near where Moore now lives part-time and where he and his wife are building a Japanese-style home. In the meantime, he makes do with a Meade 8-inch (20-centimeter) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a Go-To electronic pointing system, which his family gave him for a recent birthday.

Moore says his foundation, despite its large size, isn’t likely to rush into new fields. Lately, however, it has begun to take on the problems of nursing care. The move was prompted by a couple of very bad hospital experiences that Moore and his wife had. The scariest occurred several years ago, when Betty Moore was in a hospital overnight and a nurse woke her up to give her a shot. Betty insisted that she wasn’t due for a shot, but the nurse still injected her with the insulin intended for the woman in the next bed, an error that put two lives at risk. (Yes, even billionaires sometimes get poor care.)

So the foundation has granted about $150 million to a program to assess and improve nursing quality in 39 Bay Area hospitals; it has also granted the University of California, Davis, $100 million to build a new nursing school and will likely take on more nursing-related projects, Moore says.

These days, Moore logs a lot of hours in the air between Hawaii and Silicon Valley. In the past few years, giving in to pressure from friends, he’s started flying first class, one of his few extravagances. In the Valley, he attends board meetings, gets his mail, pays bills, and meets with foundation grantees and potential grantees. He’s a local celebrity, recognizable enough to generate a buzz when he walks down the street or into a restaurant. In Hawaii, he catches up on his reading and is learning, at age 79, to play golf.

Except, that is, when remote areas of the world beckon, and the fish are biting.

“Venezuela,” Gordon Moore says with a sparkle in his eye. “That’s next. I’m going to try for bonefish.”

To Probe Further

Gordon E. Moore’s autobiographical essay “The Accidental Entrepreneur.”

For details about Moore’s contributions to the semiconductor industry, see “Gordon Earle Moore” by Christophe Lécuyer and David C. Brock in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 28, no. 3, July–September 2006.

The Fairchild Chronicles is a three-hour video documentary about Fairchild Semiconductor.