SAN JOSE, Calif. — On April 19, 1965, Electronics magazine published a paper in which Gordon Moore made a stunning observation: About every two years, engineers should be able to cram twice as many transistors into the same area of a silicon chip.
Over the next 50 years, engineers more or less managed to maintain that predicted pace of innovation, delivering dramatically better semiconductors. Their efforts were central to the seeming magic of a high tech sector riding an exponential growth curve that became known as Moore’s law.
Of the thousands of engineers who have kept Moore’s law going, EE Times interviewed a trio of top chip technologists who shared their stories and optimism that progress will continue.
To date the progress Moore’s law represents has not been limited to “just ever faster and cheaper computers but an infinite number of new applications from communications and the Internet to smart phones and tablets,” said Robert Maire, a semiconductor analysts writing in a recent newsletter.
“No other industry can claim similar far reaching impact on the lives of so many people…[in] less than a lifespan, more changes in the world can be traced back to the enabling power of the semiconductor industry than any other industry…More lives have been saved and fortunes impacted,” Maire wrote.
Those benefits are measured in trillions of dollars, according to G. Dan Hutcheson, chief executive of VLSI Research. He calculates the deflationary value of packing more features into the same silicon area at $67.8 billion last year alone, with a knock-on value of half a trillion dollars to the overall electronics industry that used the chips.
“The market value of the companies across the spectrum of technology driven by Moore’s Law amounted to $13 trillion in 2014,” Hutchison estimated. “Another way to put it is that one-fifth of the asset value in the world’s economy would be wiped out if the integrated circuit had not been invented and Moore’s law never happened,” he said.
Gordon Moore submitted this simple table for his original magazine article.
For engineers like Mark Bohr, Moore’s law was the heartbeat of daily life at Intel, driving it to its longstanding position as the world’s biggest chip maker.
“By the time I joined the company in 1978, the concept was well engrained in Intel culture,” said Bohr, now a senior fellow in Intel’s manufacturing group. “What started out as an observation became a guide for us all that we felt we needed to follow and, if possible, faster than anyone else in the industry,” he said.
Bohr still recalls one of his rare interactions with Moore who in 1978 was Intel’s chief executive. As a recent college grad six months into his job at Intel, Bohr developed a new contact etching process and sent a report on it to his boss and senior engineers in his group, copying Moore.
“I knew Gordon was an engineer at heart and thought he might be interested,” Bohr recalled. “A week later he sent back the front page where he wrote, ‘Hey Mark, looks great. Make sure other engineers know about it,’” he said, noting he still keeps the page in his office.
“I spent rest of my career in Oregon so we rarely met and interacted, but I was in a few meetings where some of my superiors gave presentations to him,” Bohr recalled. “He was more the quiet type and listened and then spoke up occasionally with words of wisdom — he was not a table pounder like some CEOs,” he said.