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. 

Reading a story like this, it is impossible not to draw parallels with Noyce's later achievements. His ability to coerce and lead. His daring. His smarts. His willingness to toss himself into the unknown. This is the stuff of Great Man narratives. 

But let's look at an interesting complement to this plane story from the end of Noyce's life, the day Noyce took Steve Jobs out for a ride one day in 1979.

Noyce's wife, Ann Bowers, had taken to working with Apple. Jobs, for his part, had sought out Noyce as a mentor. He called their house late at night, dropped in at odd times, and generally made himself a scruffy presence in their lives. They took a liking to young Steve and so Noyce took Jobs flying in his Seabee, a World War II-era plane, which could land on land or water. Here's what happened:

After landing on a lake, Noyce pulled a wrong lever, inadvertently locking the wheels. It was not until he tried to land the plane on a runway that he realized there was a problem. Immediately upon hitting the ground, the Seabee leapt forward and nearly flipped. Jobs watched with mounting panic as Noyce furiously tried to bring the plane under control while sparks shot past the windows. "As this was happening," Jobs recalls, "I was picturing the headline: 'Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs Killed in Fiery Plane Crash.'

I thought about that moment while watching the American Experience film about Silicon Valley. What makes a good story are the characters, and so we focus on a Noyce or a Jobs. But the deeper you look at a given time and place, particularly the milieu associated with a series of technologies as powerful as the transistor, integrated circuit, microprocessor, and personal computer, the more the contingencies and luck crop up. Both were undeniably great entrepreneurs but there were so many near misses and near deaths and wrong turns. You can't help but ask, what if? Jobs' success was not accidental; but his death would have been.

Sheer contingency is, in fact, a dominant theme of Wolfe's piece about Noyce. What were the whole series of pieces of good fortune that positioned Noyce to be in exactly the place to seize the opportunity to create his fortune and legacy? 

Just consider, through Wolfe's telling, the sheer luck involved in Noyce's early exposure to the transistor, which is basically a precondition to the rest of his life.

It was in the summer of 1948 that Grant Gale, a forty-five-year-old physics professor at Grinnell College, ran across an item in the newspaper concerning a former classmate of his at the University of Wisconsin named John Bardeen. Bardeen's father had been dean of medicine at Wisconsin, and Gale's wife Harriet's father had been dean of the engineering school, and so Bardeen and Harriet had grown up as fellow faculty brats, as the phrase went. Both Gale and Bardeen had majored in electrical engineering. Eventually Bardeen had taught physics at the University of Minnesota and had then left the academic world to work for Bell Laboratories, the telephone company's main research center, in Murray Hill, New Jersey. And now, according to the item, Bardeen and another engineer at Bell, Walter Brattain, had invented a novel little device they called a transistor.

It was only an item, however: the invention of the transistor in 1948 did not create headlines. The transistor apparently performed the same function as the vacuum tube, which was an essential component of telephone relay systems and radios.... [Gale] thought it would be terrific to get some transistors for his physics department at Grinnell. So he wrote to Bardeen at Bell Laboratories. Just to make sure his request didn't get lost in the shuffle, he also wrote to the president of Bell Laboratories, Oliver Buckley. Buckley was from Sloane, Iowa, and happened to be a Grinnell graduate. So by the fall of 1948 Gale had obtained two of the first transistors ever made, and he presented the first academic instruction in solid-state electronics available anywhere in the world, for the benefit of the eighteen students majoring in physics at Grinnell College.

One of Grant Gale's senior physics majors was a local boy named Robert Noyce, whom Gale had known for years.

Then consider that Noyce had almost been thrown out of school for a prank before his senior year, i.e. before the time when he was exposed to the device. Only Gale spending his own reputational credit kept Noyce from a much worse punishment. His help eventually helped Noyce land at MIT instead of slapped with a felony conviction for messing with a farmer's pig. Was Noyce's success accidental? Not really. But his lack of failure was. Deal a few more hands, and it's easy to doubt that Noyce would have kept getting dealt a flush, no matter how skilled a player he might have been.

Or as Wolfe put it:

Well, it had been a close one! What if Grant Gale hadn't gone to school with John Bardeen, and what if Oliver Buckley hadn't been a Grinnell alumnus? And what if Gale hadn't bothered to get in touch with the two of them after he read the little squib about the transistor in the newspaper? What if he hadn't gone to bat for Bob Noyce after the Night of the Luau Pig and the boy had been thrown out of college and that had been that? After all, if Bob hadn't been able to finish at Grinnell, he probably never would have been introduced to the transistor. He certainly wouldn't have come across it at MIT in 1948. Given what Bob Noyce did over the next twenty years, one couldn't help but wonder about the fortuitous chain of events.

To ask these things is not to demean Noyce's talents, but rather to wonder how many other would-be Noyces were frustrated? How many other legends just missed? Jack Dorsey and Steve Jobs and Bob Noyce: all brilliant, hardworking people. But how many brilliant hardworking people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How many encountered a system that made it harder for them? How many people from uneducated families or inner cities, immigrants or the grandchildren of slaves never found themselves in a position to show their awesomeness? How many women were forced to act as mere appendages to their husbands -- as Berlin's research shows that Noyce's first wife was? William Shockley, the man who originally brought Noyce to Silicon Valley once "dismissed a potential recruit with a jotted notation in his notebook that he 'did not want a man whose wife was annoyed about it all.'" These were not conditions in which it was equally possible for all people to flourish. And yet we hand down these stories from generation to generation as if everyone had an equal shot at success.

Things are more subtle now. Things are better, too. I'd rather be a half-Mexican kid from a nowheresville town now than at any other time in American history. (Which is not to say everything is fine.) And I think people like Jack Dorsey or Jason Calacanis should own their success within this tiny world we call Silicon Valley. Well done, guys. Completely earnestly, what they've accomplished is commendable. 

But you can't just relive building the airplane. Part of the responsibility of success is to consider the near crashes, the ways the world let you slip by, the mountain of accidents that put you in a certain place at a certain time where you could fly. 

In my perfect world, this reflection would lead these people to use their power to make similar levels of luck more likely for a wider variety of people. Given the chance, I bet their skills can take them from there. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls 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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