Obstinate and Pliable

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Robert Noyce and His Congregation

Posted by John on May 15, 2008


I stumbled upon an archived version of this fantastic Tom Wolfe essay published in Forbes back in 1997.  (The internetz never forget)  In the essay Wolfe traces a continuous line connecting the old dissenting protestant tradition to the corporate culture of Silicon Valley today.  I distinctly remember reading a expanded version of this essay circa 2000 when it ran in the old Forbes ASAP magazine.  The article completely engrossed me at the time because Wolfe is a supremely talented writer, but also because at that point I had never considered the origins of all the social norms that governed my professional life.  (e.g.   loose dress codes, contempt for hierarchy, long hours, etc.)

ROBERT NOYCE, INVENTOR OF THE silicon microchip and co-founder of Intel, grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, one of countless small towns in the Midwest that had been founded in the 19th century as religious communities by so-called Dissenting Protestants: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and many others. What Dissenting Protestants dissented from was the Church of England and its elaborate ties to British upper-class life. The founder of the town of Grinnell (1854) was a young New England Congregational minister, Josiah Grinnell, who was weary of the decadence of the East Coast and wanted to establish a City of Light out on the virgin plains.[…]

[…]But when it came time to set up the two famous Silicon Valley corporations he headed, Fairchild Semiconductor and, subsequently, Intel, he discovered that Grinnell had come west with him, as if sewn into the very linings of his clothes. Without even knowing it was happening, he had become the Josiah Grinnell of the Silicon Valley’s corporate culture.

Having never worked in Silicon Valley, I can’t say whether Noyce’s ethos still pervades the Valley or not.  I choose to believe that it does though because I’m enamored with the idea of wide-eyed Web 2.0 programmers build new social networking platforms while they “repeat Noycisms with conviction and with relish […] without a clue as to where they came from.”

Go out and get it, because A.) It’s a rollickin’ good read and B.) you should read everything that Tom Wolfe writes.

The extended version included in Wolfe’s collection “Hooking Up” is certainly worth checking out as well.  It adds a quick historical sketch of the integrated circuit and great background on tiny Grinnell College, the Iowa school that was once at the world’s forefront of solid state electronics and is now famous chiefly for its enormous financial endowment that it amassed thanks to getting in early on the companies started by Noyce and another Midwestern boy named Warren Buffett.  I should note that the Grinnell basketball squad aslo gets a fair bit of pub for its ludicrously up-tempo offense and unorthodox substitutions policy.

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