Agents Of Change


Born in 1937, he had grown up near North Chili, New York, near Rochester, and attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Hired by Intel’s Robert Noyce as the company’s twelfth employee, he had been delegated to figure out new applications for the company’s electronic chips. His microprocessor could do much more than serve as the heart of a pocket calculator, but neither he nor his bosses were sure just what. On November 15,1971, Intel ran ads in Electronic News announcing the new kind of chip. It invited the world, almost desperately, to figure out what use to make of it. Eventually the world responded.

Intel never even pushed for patent rights, and Hoff never became wealthy from his invention. A self-effacing man, he often said that if he hadn’t invented the microprocessor, someone else would have, because the idea “was in the air.” In 1990 there surfaced a rival claim by a man named Gilbert Hyatt, an inventor no one in Silicon Valley had ever heard of. Hyatt obtained the patent Hoff had never sought.

The debate suggests how the nature of modern technology has changed the role of individual invention and innovation. Intel itself formally credits Hoff, Stan Mazor, Masatoshi Shima, and Federico Faggin as the team behind the microprocessor, but in Intel’s publicity Hoff is clearly the hero.

Like the larger transformation of the planet through computerization, the development of the microprocessor has taken on a sense of inevitability unlike that enjoyed by technology since the nineteenth century, when the progress of the locomotive seemed as natural as the evolution of Darwin’s finch. At Intel they quote Moore’s Law, formulated by one of the company’s founders, that the number of transistors on a chip triples every two years. The companies behind the chips seem to do the same. The Electronics Industry Association for years handed out a family tree of Silicon Valley firms that sprang from Bell Labs, birthplace of the transistor, and multiplied like an atomic chain reaction.


Faggin put the matter in perspective when he wrote that the microprocessor was one of those “turning points” in technology that occur when “something unstoppable . . . becomes the catalyst for sweeping social and technological changes. We call these inventions, and yet they appear at once to be too big and too obvious to be described as such. Such examples are the car, the airplane, the microprocessor. These are the inventions that do not result from the establishment of any new scientific principles, but rather from the synthesis of existing principles into a new form that extends in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways what could be done before. . . . Because there is a certain inevitability about inventions of this sort, which have often been anticipated by futurists, the real contribution lies first in making the idea work.”

Today the microprocessor is one high-tech realm where America clearly dominates the world. It has become so vital to the economy, packing so much power and value into so little size and weight that it is the booty of one of the newest forms of crime. It is like drugs or jewels. Gangs hold up warehouses, steal their Intel microprocessors, and sell them on the black markets of Taiwan and Korea. It is perhaps the second-highest form of flattery.


It was one of the very few good ideas ever born in conversation across a bar. After a day’s work as a perfume and flavor salesman, Alan Stillman would drop in at his neighborhood bar, the imaginatively named Good Tavern, on First Avenue in Manhattan, a place with a bullet hole in the window. Stillman told the bartender, “You ought to work on luring single people in here with food.” The idea still sounded good the next morning, at least to Stillman. With five thousand dollars of his own money and five thousand borrowed from his mother, he bought the Good Tavern, and on March 15, 1965, he opened T.G.I. Friday’s, the world’s first singles bar.

A new generation of white-brick apartment towers was rising along First Avenue. Stillman, who had grown up in the city, could see the change they represented. Single people, especially single women, were moving into those big buildings. One next door to the Good Tavern was known as the Stew Zoo. “There were a hundred and eighty apartments in that building, but there were four hundred and eighty stewardesses,” Stillman recalls. “No one knew that, but I did because I was part of that culture. We were always saying, ‘Where’s the party tonight?'” It was later estimated that 780,000 single people were living on Manhattan’s East Side between Thirtieth and Ninetieth streets.

Many of these singles had come to New York from small towns searching for what Stillman called “a constant cocktail party,” and he decorated T.G.I. Friday’s to convey a party air, selling inexpensive hamburgers and other food—for these singles had little interest in cooking—along with liquor. Stillman pleads guilty to having created the fern bar at T.G.I. Friday’s; poverty is his excuse. There was little he could do inexpensively to redecorate the old tavern except hang plants and mock-Tiffany lamps.