In the wake of Grove’s death, observes Wired, “The tech industry has come together to mourn the loss of Andy Grove,” as well it should. Yet in addition to celebrating Grove’s many achievements, the industry should also be celebrating the farsighted policies that helped make those achievements possible—policies that are now not just widely forgotten but under broad assault. Even more important, the industry and its allies should see in Grove’s remarkable life an inspiration for reviving the active government role in the knowledge economy on which future Andy Groves—and American prosperity more broadly—depend.
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Government support for science in the United States goes back to the earliest days of the republic. Lewis and Clark’s famous westward expedition, for example, was in substantial part a scientific mission. President Jefferson not only insisted that Meriwether Lewis train with leading scientists but also devoted his own time and intellect to preparing him. Yet the biggest early public spurs for science came from investment in defense-related technology and from support for higher education—most notably, in the Morrill Act of 1862 and its successors, which artfully used the disposition of public lands as a substitute for tax-financed spending. These investments seeded U.C. Berkeley and roughly 70 other institutions—including Cornell, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, and MIT—that became the core of America’s scientific infrastructure.
Government’s role in science expanded dramatically in the 20th century: first during World War I and then again amid the programmatic flurry of the New Deal. The watershed, however, was the U.S. entry into World War II. Within a decade, the United States had eclipsed Germany as the home of the greatest scientific thinkers, as signaled by its sudden rise to dominance in the tally of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. In traveling from Hungary to the United States, Andy Grove was part of a brain drain that recast America’s place in the scientific world and helped propel more than two generations of technological innovation.
It was not just that scientists poured into the United States. Even more important, the federal government poured unprecedented sums into scientific R&D. Drafting the blueprint for this revolution was Vannevar Bush—an MIT scientist who headed the Defense Department’s office for scientific research during World War II and served as a close advisor to FDR. Bush was a conservative Republican who believed in the independence of science from government meddling. He also believed that America’s economic and national security rested on massive public investments in science through new institutions like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.
This was the world that gave rise to Fairchild and modern Silicon Valley—and that helped make possible the achievements of Andy Grove. Fairchild would not have existed but for the Defense Department. Though a private company, 80 percent of its transistors and 100 percent of its early integrated circuits were destined for military use in 1960. Nor was Fairchild an aberration. According to a careful study by the Brookings Institution, 18 of the 25 biggest breakthroughs in computing technology between 1946 and 1965—breakthroughs like magnetic core memory, graphics displays, and multiple central processors—were financed by the federal government.