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The spark behind a new culture of innovators

Few people had a greater impact on life in the second half of the 20th century than Bob Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit. Yet he was little known outside the field of electronics.

Leslie Berlin, in ''The Man Behind the Microchip," her highly readable biography of Noyce, describes how his work sparked two revolutions in the modern business and technology era.

The first was scientific. Noyce, a lifelong inventor, was awarded 17 patents. One was for his 1959 work on the integrated circuit, the tiny device that powers everything from personal computers and cellphones to a new generation of smart cars and advanced weaponry.

Beyond his technical achievements, Noyce played a key role in the evolution of today's Silicon Valley, the high-tech hub in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the Valley's distinctive entrepreneurial culture that has spread widely and transformed much of the business world.

Noyce helped form two of the Valley's defining companies, Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corp. Indeed, the Fairchild founding in 1957 by a Noyce-led group was a seminal event for Silicon Valley. By breaking away from Shockley Semiconductor, the Fairchild team upset the established order and ushered in a new culture of itinerant innovators, practical research, venture-fueled start-ups, and decentralized management.

Noyce, despite his natural leadership skills, was most comfortable in the research lab. He was a reluctant manager who worked ''in such close consultation with his subordinates that they felt they worked with him, not for him," Berlin writes.

Berlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, hints as to why Noyce, who died in 1990, remains less celebrated than such colleagues as Gordon Moore, who founded Intel with Noyce, and such proteges as Andy Grove, who eventually took the helm at Intel. The son of a Congregational minister, Noyce grew up in small Iowa towns during the Depression. Even as an adult, he maintained a self-effacing manner, an aversion to conflict, and an avoidance of the limelight. His mastery of almost everything he undertook inspired fierce devotion and occasional jealousy among Silicon Valley's technologists.

During graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Noyce was dazzled by the intellect of the engineers and scientists on the faculty. A few years later, when he got a call from William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and a legend in solid-state electronics, Noyce said ''it was like picking up the phone and talking to God."

Noyce moved his family to California to work at Shockley's company. But like his co-workers there, Noyce chafed under the brilliant but imperious Shockley. He and seven colleagues left the company because they hated the boss and wanted freedom.

A half century later, in an era where microchips power wireless laptops and drug research, their breakaway seems in retrospect like a reprise of Moses and his flock crossing the Red Sea.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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