Briefly noted: The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company — Michael S. Malone

The Intel Trinity is another of these books that one wishes were better written but that remains interesting throughout nonetheless. For one thing, I bought the party line about Intel being essentially indomitable from its inception to the present. It wasn’t (“Frankly, the evidence argues that Intel may have been the most successful technology company ever founded by a dysfunctional start-up team—certainly by such a team that stayed together”). The book also injects ideas about history and legacy into a very contemporary culture:

Thanks to the amnesia of Silicon Valley and the digital world, [Robert Noyce] had almost been forgotten by each subsequent generation of techies as they elbowed their way to fame at a thousand dot-com companies, and then at Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Intel_TrinityOver time, “Silicon Valley had finally and unexpectedly become history,” at least to its founders. Over a long enough time period anything becomes history, although Alan Kay famously said, “I also happen to believe in history. The lack of interest, the disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field. [. . . Computing is] complete pop culture. I’m not against pop culture. Developed music, for instance, needs a pop culture.”

It will take many more books and maybe many more years before it becomes less of a pop culture, if it ever does. The Intel Trinity is history, but the paper quality of the hardcover is oddly poor, as if the publishers themselves imagined the book to be non-essential and disposable. That contrast between the historical comments and the quality of the physical object itself is odd.

Still, it does trace the story of Intel from its beginnings and from the Fairchild exodus. Fairchild employees were apparently more dissolute and fun than modern tech company workers, or at least compared to the image of modern tech workers:

Just to repeat the anecdotes of the era is insufficient. There were endless after-work drunken gatherings at the nearby Wagon Wheel saloon, where women employees were hustled, marriages were broken, feuds were fed, and in time, employees were stolen by competitors.

Intel itself, however, was apparently less exciting, at least for most people.

The Intel Trinity also points to some of the reasons why Silicon Valley has been so hard to dislodge as a startup capitol (much as NYC is still a publishing capitol, despite outrageously high housing costs): “between 1967 and 1973, [hundreds of new companies] created not only a vast and prosperous business-technology community, but also the greatest start-up company incubator the world had ever seen” (59). At a time when most people were focused on free love and the word “start-up” to connote a new company didn’t really exist, northern California was blossoming. That’s a tremendous head start that’s hard to overcome today and will be hard to overcome tomorrow, despite San Francisco’s completely insane politics.

I haven’t yet got to the stories of Noyce, Moore and Grove. The latter has the most flabbergasting story, since he barely escaped World War II-era Hungary, when Hungary first fought on the side of the Germans, then was occupied by Germany, then was occupied by the Soviets, and eventually had its fledgling democracy crushed by the Soviets. Grove was Jewish and his survival story is amazing enough to have made me order his memoir, Swimming Across, which Malone draws from.

One has to wonder why the Intel trinity is less famous than, say, Bill Gates. I think the answer is simple: there were three of them. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are less famous than Gates, though their company is at least as important, largely because I think the press needs a single person to deify and to hate. Multiple founders makes the process of adulation and despair harder to conduct. Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the most famous modern startup founder because he stands alone in the spotlight. This reading owes something to Zero to One, which is as much about culture and it is about startups. Culture is everywhere, even in technology, as Malone reminds us.

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