[Paleopsych] NYT: It's Moore's Law, but Another Had the Idea First
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Mon Apr 18 19:03:27 UTC 2005
It's Moore's Law, but Another Had the Idea First
By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO, April 17 - One of the cornerstones of Silicon Valley
will mark an anniversary Tuesday. Forty years ago, Electronics
magazine published Gordon E. Moore's celebrated article predicting
that the number of transistors that could be placed on a silicon chip
would continue to double at regular intervals for the foreseeable
Named Moore's Law several years later by the physicist Carver Mead,
that simple observation has proven to be the bulwark of the world's
most remarkable industry.
Yet Mr. Moore was not the only one - or even the first - to observe
the so-called scaling effect that has led to the exponential
acceleration of computing power that is now expected to continue at
least for the next decade.
Before Mr. Moore's magazine article precisely plotted the increase in
the number of transistors on a chip, beginning with 1, the computer
scientist Douglas C. Engelbart had made a similar observation at the
very dawn of the integrated-circuit era. Mr. Moore had heard Mr.
Engelbart lecture on the subject, possibly in 1960.
Mr. Engelbart would later be hailed as the inventor of the computer
mouse as well as the leading developer of many technologies that
underlie both the personal computer industry and the Internet.
In a 2001 interview, Mr. Engelbart said that it was his thinking about
the scaling down of circuits that gave him the confidence to move
ahead with the design of an interactive computing system.
"I was relieved because it wasn't as crazy as everyone thought," he
Significantly, the two pioneers represent twin Silicon Valley cultures
that have combined to create the digital economy.
Mr. Moore, who co-founded Intel, is an icon of the precise and
perhaps narrower chip engineering discipline that today continues to
progress by layering sheets of individual molecules, one on top of the
other, and by making wires that are finer in diameter than a
wavelength of light.
"Gordon was the classic engineer," said Craig Barrett, Intel's chief
executive, who had just begun to teach engineering at Stanford
University when Mr. Moore made his famous prediction. The chart that
accompanied his article was a plot that showed just five data points
over seven years and extrapolated out into the future as far as 1975,
when a single chip would be able to hold as many as 65,000
transistors. Forty years later, memory chip capacity has gone far
beyond one billion of the tiny switches.
Mr. Engelbart, in contrast, was the architect of a passionately held
view that computing could extend or "augment" the power of the human
mind. His ideas were set out most clearly in 1968, in a famous
demonstration in San Francisco of his Pentagon-financed Augment
computing system. Many things were shown to the world for the first
time, including the mouse, videoconferencing, interactive text
editing, hypertext and networking - basically the outlines of modern
Mr. Engelbart had an epiphany in 1950, in which he imagined what would
decades later become today's Internet-connected PC. He set about
building it. At the time he had no idea of how he would build such a
machine, but it soon became clear that it would require a computer
that did not yet exist.
Later he was offered a job at Hewlett-Packard, but when he learned
that the company had no plans to enter the computer business, he went
to work instead at Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International.
There he worked with a group of military-funded researchers who were
attempting to build magnetic-based computing circuits. The military
was interested in the technology because of its potential performance
in outer space.
With the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959, however, the
group realized that its work would soon fall by the wayside.
Thinking about the idea of miniaturized circuitry, Mr. Engelbart
realized that it would scale down to vastly smaller sizes than the
current electronic comments. He had that insight because earlier he
had worked as an electronics technician in the wind tunnel at the Ames
Research Center, a NASA laboratory in Mountain View, Calif. There,
aerodynamicists made models and scaled them up into complete
It was an easy conceptual leap to realize that integrated circuits
would scale in the opposite direction. In 1959 he put his ideas into a
paper, titled "Microelectronics and the Art of Similitude." In
February 1960, he traveled to the International Circuit Conference in
Philadelphia. There he explained to his audience that as chips scaled
down, the new microelectronic engineers would have to worry about
changing constraints, just as aerodynamicists had to worry about the
One person who has a clear memory of Mr. Engelbart's description is
Mr. Moore, although he does not remember whether he heard him speak in
Philadelphia or elsewhere.
"The thing that I remember from it is his question if we would notice
anything different if everything in the room was suddenly 10 times as
large," he wrote in an e-mail message. "He answered it by suggesting
that the chandelier might fall."
Several historians pointed out that Mr. Engelbart's previous
observation did nothing to detract from the significance of Mr.
Moore's careful plotting of the trend.
"It still should be called Moore's Law rather than Engelbart's Law,"
said Michael Riordan, a historian of physics at the University of
California, Santa Cruz. "Science is still based on theory and
As for Mr. Engelbart, the 1959 paper convinced him that the
Augmentation machine he envisioned would be possible, because
computing would be plentiful in the future.
He was one of the first to grasp the implications of the new
technology. Years later he recalled in an interview that he told his
Philadelphia audience, "Boy, are there going to be surprises over
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