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In 1970, Dov Frohman was finishing his first year at Intel. He had just graduated with a PhD in computer science and was working on early memory products. And he was on the brink of inventing one of the most important tools for the future of computing: erasable programmable read-only memory, more simply known as EPROM.
Today, at 79, Frohman is an Intel legend. As he walks the halls of Intel’s Santa Clara, California, headquarters – even 17 years into retirement – people still stop to stare (“Hey, that’s Dov Frohman!”) or stride up to shake his hand and introduce – or re-introduce – themselves.
EPROM, memory that retains its data when power is switched off, sped the development of modern computing. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore would later say EPROM was “as important in the development of the microcomputer industry as the microprocessor itself.”
Frohman was not only the creator of one of the seminal inventions of the 20th century and a building block of modern computing. He was also the driving force in 1974 behind the establishment of Intel Israel. Ultimately, the young engineer who joined Intel soon after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley would rise to become an Intel vice president and general manager of the company’s operations there.
As Intel celebrates its 50th year, Intel’s communications team met with Frohman during his recent trip to California from his native Israel. Frohman’s conversation was wide-ranging: from a pivotal conversation with Robert Noyce, one of Intel’s founders, to what he most remembers about Andy Grove, an early company leader.
Q: Was there an “aha!” moment that led to your invention of EPROM?
I don’t believe there was one. I don’t believe any inventor has one. Instead, you daydream. There is so much information around now that inventions don’t come from multitudes of information; they come from hunches.
Q: So how do you suggest people daydream?
Well, it’s not something you work hard at, it’s something that you let happen. And that’s the hardest thing for people to do, because we are taught how to work, and details of it and everything, but we don’t let day dreaming happen. And we’re missing a lot. The bigger the operation, the bigger the organization, the more important daydreaming can be.
It’s important for the atmosphere to let people do crazy things. The crazy things can be inventions, can be behavior, can be a vision, or thoughts.
Q: You’ve written a lot about the importance of taking risks. You’ve told the story of how Bob Noyce reacted to your seemingly crazy EPROM idea — of creating a chip with a little clear window on top, so that strong ultraviolet light could be used to erase the chip’s memory.
Yes. I’d been thinking that if I propose to put a lid on the package, in order to be able to erase it with UV, the production people will throw me out of the building, because it was unheard of.
And so, I’m contemplating and dreaming and everything, but I don’t have the courage to go propose it. Then I ran into Bob Noyce one day. He said, “Dov, you look preoccupied this morning, what’s the problem?” I told him my idea of using UV to erase memory. Noyce looked at me and he said, “Why not?” He said it so loud that almost the whole the facility heard it. Those words have really guided me all my life.
Q: That was one kind of risk-taking. I believe you literally owe your life to another kind of risk-taking. A family in the rural Netherlands took you in as a child, and, at great personal risk to themselves, hid you from the Nazis during the Second World War.
Yes. That family took a risk with their whole family because I was not like them. I was Jewish, with black hair. They had two blond kids. And there is a big lesson from this about the courage that people have in changing somebody’s life, in preserving somebody’s life. So this is really a guiding thought for me. It’s almost not graspable that somebody else could put their own life at risk to save a child. [Dov’s parents perished in the Holocaust. He saw them for the last time when he was age 3.]
Q: You’ve written why it’s important for people in an organization to focus on survival. How important is it for people at a company as successful as Intel to still worry about survival?
Well, it’s even more important. Because the bigger you are, the more you stand to lose. The fact is that the more successful you are, the more complacent you can get about your survival.
Q: That’s a difficult thing to do, if objectively things look pretty good, right?
Yeah, it’s difficult but you have to. Let me give you an example. Today, the whole economy of the world is based on the model of the West that is dependent on continuous growth. And what happens when it stops? I’m sure it’s going to happen. There’s no way around it.
Q: You are one of the few people still around who worked closely with Intel’s founders, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, as well as Andy Grove. What comes to mind when you think of Andy?
Andy Grove would say “Please respect my time, nothing more than that.” And he taught me a lesson. Don’t write long memos. I learned to be succinct.
Q: Gordon Moore?
I remember Gordon Moore’s foresight, looking forward all the time. That was his really strong suit.
Q: Bob Noyce?
Nothing fazed him. He was a “why not?” kind of guy. And he was a people person.
Q: What could young people entering the technology world learn from a guy like Dov Frohman?
You have to be adamant, you have to believe in survival and opportunities, and you have to be persistent. But I think the most important thing for young people is to have the conviction that they have the capability of changing the organization. And through the organization, changing the world.
To learn more about Dov Frohman’s extraordinary life, read his 19-page oral history, recorded in 2009 by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.