Gordon Moore still has a bottle of Napoleon brandy signed by the gang that helped get Intel up and running in 1968. The company co-founder and chairman emeritus won the bottle by wagering that by the end of that year, all the manufacturing gear for making semiconductor memories would be in place and the process would be ready to go. On New Year's Eve - only a week after a flood from a broken pipe threatened to shut the operation down - the group completed the groundwork. Moore threw a party for the bet's losers, and Intel has been beating the odds ever since. Like many early Silicon Valley start-ups, Intel was born of Fairchild Semiconductor, which Moore, integrated-circuit inventor Robert Noyce, and six others launched in 1958. Frustrated by management crises at Fairchild, Moore and Noyce decided to strike out on their own to form a company that would research, develop, and manufacture "integrated electronic structures". Moore recently spoke with Leslie Goff about the early days at Intel.
IDG: What was your original vision for Intel?
Moore: We wanted to make complex integrated circuits. And we saw semiconductor memory as the place to get started. But our vision didn't go that far. As a start-up, we were more concerned with short-term survival. We figured we had to get to $US25 million in revenues in five years - that was the vision. And we made $53 million in five years, so we met that comfortably.
Potential customers such as IBM and Digital Equipment weren't interested in microprocessors. What kept Intel going until they took notice?
It was all these embedded applications. The microprocessor was showing up in all kinds of things you would never have imagined - it offered an easy way to do programmable logic, and that is still the majority of microprocessor applications today.
What were some of the early applications?
A lot of funny things - some guy automated his chicken house using one of our microprocessors. I don't know what an automated chicken house does, but that was certainly creative. There was a marijuana sniffer that could replace drug-sniffing guard dogs. Then there were important ones like blood analysers. And early in the game, people started looking at them for automotive applications - Buick built a cruise control using one.
Did you ever think the whole thing was going to tank?
Surely not in '68. If you talk to Andy [Grove, current chairman and Intel's fourth employee], you get a different view. But I had been through two start-ups before, and Intel was so smooth - everything worked well. For him, it was his first, and he was closer to a lot that had to happen. And he considers it the most trying time of his life.
What do you recall about Grove's early management style?
Even though he had a strong technical background, he got much more interested and involved in organisations and how they were run. Have you ever heard about Andy's "Sign-in List"? I was complaining that we couldn't get a meeting going until 8:30 am. So he had the idea that anyone who entered the building after 8:06 am had to sign a list. If you got to the parking lot at 8:03 or 8:04, you would run to the building so you wouldn't have to sign the list. Even I did it. When Andy became president, he got rid of it. It was innocuous - there were no consequences of being on the list - but it had a significant psychological impact.
Outside of technical finesse, what are some of the things Intel did early that are still reflected in the company today?
We developed a strong corporate culture almost from the beginning that tried to let people with the greatest technical knowledge make the technical decisions. We haven't over-directed from the top. And we've had organisational strength - we always tried to hire the best people. The management team has all been people we hired early in their career, and that has given us a consistent culture that is very powerful.