Why US Electronics Succeeded


By Gwydion M. Williams

Early in June, the death occurred of Robert Noyce. You probably haven’t heard of him, but what he did had a big effect on the world – and was one of the reasons why the capitalist world market won out over Leninism.

Noyce was one of the electronic engineers hired by William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, to exploit the invention commercially. Deciding that Shockley didn’t understand how to succeed as a businessman, he and some of his colleagues left to found a company that they called Fairchild. He later left that company too, to found Intel, the company that invented the microprocessor and is still very important in the industry. Jn hiving off he was very typical of the electronic pioneers – indeed the companies founded by defectors from Fairchild have been very important, and people refer to them jokingly as the ‘fairchildren’.

Why should this matter, to anyone who isn’t an electronics buff? Because no similar process was allowed to happen in the USSR. There, the top experts thought that valves were the main things, that transistors would never be very important. And then when they did accept that the transistor had its points, they were too slow to adapt. Even though the USSR was interested in computers from the very beginning, its computer and consumer electronics industry fell far behind. And that messed everything else up.

There is no reason why a planned socialist system should not allow bright young people with innovative ideas to go out and try to do better than their elders. Indeed, under Stalin this was in some cases allowed. But under Brezhnev, the whole thing stagnated, with people sitting on top of their own bureaucratic hierarchy for decades and decades, stopping anything that didn’t fit their own idea of what was proper. Now, it’s too late.

This was an item in Newsnotes 018 – July 1990.