And Now Let Us Praise, and Consider the Absurd Luck of, Famous Men

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A lesson about the success of Great Men from Intel co-founder Bob Noyce's life story.

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A couple of weeks ago, Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted this:

At first, snuffling through a head cold, I wrote several snarky responses -- e.g. " 'Success is never accidental,' said all multimillionaire white men." -- but never tweeted them. Because I've seen a lot of successful people in action and sometimes you're like, "Holy hell, Bill Gates (or Paul Otellini or James Fallows) is an impressive person." These are hardworking, brilliant people whom I did not want to demean. So, what I ended up tweeting was simple: "And failures?

It's important that we can recognize the skills of the successful while also noting the many prodigiously lucky factors that allow them to show those skills. To make this point, I want to tell you a couple of stories about Robert Noyce, "the mayor of Silicon Valley" to show what I mean.

Noyce plays a major role in the new PBS show, "Silicon Valley," which debuted this week, and for good reason. Noyce co-founded both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. He's a classic in the human genre of "Great Man."Tom Wolfe, who profiled him ("The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce") in the December 1983 issue of Esquire, said Noyce made people see a halo over his head. In fact, he's the model entrepreneur for people like Dorsey, whether they know it or not. He was selected by his peers to lead the world's most important semiconductor companies, established the start-up funding and organizational model that now defines the Valley, and almost certainly would have won a Nobel Prize if not for his death. 

People always seem to find stories about men like this from their youth that seem to mark them with greatness and serve as a metaphor for their genius. With Jobs, perhaps it's his time wandering in India developing his intuition. Edison had his newspaper business. Zuckerberg has his run-in with the Harvard's administration over hacking. Bill Gates has his own run-in with authorities over sneaking access to computers. Stories proliferate; usually you have a few to choose from.

But with Noyce, the choicest anecdote is clear. It's the story of the airplane he and his friends built when he was 12.

I'm going to rely on Stanford historian Leslie Berlin's recounting of the tale. She wrote the definitive biography on Noyce, The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon ValleyBut let's let Wolfe set the scene. We're in Grinnell, Iowa, in the middle of the 20th century, an hour and change due west from Captain Kirk's future fictional birthplace in Riverside, Iowa:
The plain truth was, Grinnell had Middle West written all over it. It was squarely in the middle of Iowa's Midland corn belt, where people on the farms said "crawdad" instead of crayfish and "barn lot" instead of barnyard. Grinnell had been one of many Protestant religious communities established in the mid-nineteenth century after Iowa became a state and settlers from the East headed for the farmlands. The streets were lined with white clapboard houses and elm trees, like a New England village. And today, in 1948, the hard-scrubbed Octagon Soap smell of nineteenth century Protestantism still permeated the houses and Main Street as well. 

And within that city, there lived the Noyce family. They did not have a lot of money, but they were devout and educated. Their mother was, in Wolfe's words, "a latter-day version of the sort of strong-willed, intelligent, New England-style woman who had made such a difference during Iowa's pioneer days a hundred years before."

There was something about Bob. "He was a trim, muscular boy, five feet eight, with thick dark brown hair, a strong jawline, and a long, broad nose that gave him a rugged appearance," Wolfe writes. "He was the star diver on the college swimming team and won the Midwest Conference championship in 1947. He sang in choral groups, played the oboe, and was an actor with the college dramatic society. He also acted in a radio drama workshop at the college, along with his friend Peter Hackes and some others who were interested in broadcasting, and was the leading man in a soap opera that was broadcast over station WOI in Ames, Iowa. Perhaps Bob Noyce was a bit too well rounded for local tastes."

There was, after all, a certain event that had been memorialized in the local paper and remembered by all the local townspeople. That event was, of course, the incident with the plane, that is to say, the glider.

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Here's Berlin's meticulously researched account:

The two boys designed the glider themselves, working from their experience building model planes and from an illustration that they found in the Book of Knowledge, a multivolume encyclopedia that their parents kept deliberately accessible on a low shelf in the living room bookcase.

The brothers pooled their combined savings of $4.53 to buy materials and sent word to their neighborhood pals that a great invention was under construction. Soon the friends were helping too. Bob Smith, whose father owned a furniture store that regularly received rolls of carpet wound around bamboo spindles, provided sticks for the frame. Charlotte Matthews, the only girl on their block of 17 boys, sewed the cheese cloth to cover the wings. When the Noyce brothers declared the glider finished, it stood some four feet tall, and its wings stretched nearly 18 feet from tip to tip. Constructed largely from 1´ × 2´ pine boards, it had neither wheels nor skids and ran entirely on boy power.

The pilot moved and steered the plane by standing amidship in an opening, holding up the frame with his two hands, and running as fast as he could. "We succeeded in running and jumping to get a little lift as experienced by the pilot," Gaylord recalls. "In running off a mound about four or five feet high, we got more." This was not good enough for Bob. Together he and Gaylord convinced their neighbor Jerry Strong, newly possessed of a driver's license and the keys to his father's car, to hitch the glider to the auto's bumper. Jerry was instructed to drive down Park Street fast enough to launch the glider and keep it aloft. The experiment, which in no way involved a seven-year-old brother, proved more terrifying than effective.

Still this was not sufficiently thrilling for Bob Noyce. He and Jerry Strong decided to try, as Noyce put it a few years later, "to jump off the roof of a barn and live." The barn in question was in Merrill Park, just across the empty fields and asparagus patch behind the Noyces' house. Word spread through town, and the Grinnell Herald sent a photographer.

Bob clambered up to the barn's roof and a few other boys handed him the glider, which weighed about 25 pounds. Bob then took a deep breath, thrust his sturdy body against the glider's frame ... and jumped. Then, for one second, two, three, young Bob Noyce was flying. He hit the ground almost immediately, but as he proudly reported in a college admissions essay a few years later, "We did [it]!"

I'd chalk this whole thing up as a myth were it not for my trust in Berlin and that photographer from the Grinnell Herald, who is responsible for the images you see in this post. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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