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.