Robert Noyce and His Congregation

Forbes, August 1997.


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.
The Congregational Church had no hierarchy. Each congregation was autonomous. A minister was a teacher rather than a holy shepherd with a flock. Each member of the Congregation was supposed to be his own priest, in direct communication with God.
When Noyce, whose father was a Congregational minister, was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, there were still people walking around in Grinnell who had known Josiah Grinnell personally. They were getting old — Grinnell had died in 1891 — but they were walking around, and Josiah’s hand still lay heavily upon his town of 7,000 souls. There were subtle gradations of status in Grinnell, and it was better to be rich than poor, but the important thing was not to show it. To all intents and purposes, there were only two social classes: those who were hard-working, God-fearing, church-going, and well educated and those who were not.