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The Tinkerings of Bob Noyce

In 1983, Esquire Magazine published a feature article about Intel co-founder, written by Tom Wolfe, “The Tinkerings of Bob Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley.”  This is one of my favorite articles about the development of a person that we’d say now was a maker and who figured out what transistors were good for and then built a company, which became the center of the computing industry. Esquire has made the article from its archive available online for free.

Esquire Article by Tom Wolfe

Wolfe wanted to know why Bob Noyce, one of the most influential innovators by developing microprocessors that led to computers, grew up in a small Midwestern town, Grinnell, Iowa, and not in a major metropolitan area.

It was one of the last towns in America that people back east would have figured to become the starting point of a bolt into the future that would create the very substructure, the electronic grid, of life in the year 2000 and beyond.

One of four brothers born to a Congregational minister and a strong-willed mother, Bob Noyce had an interest in science, like his brothers, but also theater and diving.  My favorite story that Wolfe told has to do with a thirteen-year-old Noyce and his brothers building a box-kite to see if it could keep Bob aloft, an idea they got from a magazine.

Bob had come across some plans for the building of a box kite, a kite that could carry a person aloft, in the magazine Popular Science. So he and Gaylord made a frame of cross-braced pine and covered it with a bolt of muslin. They tried to get the thing up by running across a field and towing it with a rope, but that didn’t work terribly well. Then they hauled it up on the roof of a barn, and Bob sat in the seat and Gaylord ran across the roof, pulling the kite, and Bob was lucky he didn’t break his neck when he and the rig hit the ground. So then they tied it to the rear bumper of a neighbor’s car. With the neighbor at the wheel, Bob rode the kite and managed to get about twelve feet off the ground and glide for thirty seconds or so and come down without wrecking himself or any citizen’s house or livestock.

The amazing thing is that in addition to having these kind of experiences, Bob Noyce also had access to good public schools. Noyce also had exceptional experiences, learning about transistors, at Grinnell College, even though he was suspended for a semester for what amounts to a prank involving stealing a pig for a luau.  After going to graduate school at MIT, he took a job in what was then an emerging semiconductor industry.  Then he went to California and took a job working for William Shockley before going out on his own with Gordon Moore as co-founders of Intel.

In my view, Wolfe found the answer to why Bob Noyce from Grinnell Iowa became one of the most important technical innovators of the 20th Century.

Just why was it that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an inventor, by necessity.

“In a small town,” Noyce liked to say, “when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.”

Photo of Bob Noyce from Intel Free Press.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty