In honor of the 30th anniversary of Intel’s 8086 chip, the microprocessor that set the standard that all PCs and new Macs use today, I interviewed Stephen Morse, the electrical engineer who was most responsible for the chip. Morse talks about how he ended up at Intel (his interest in Volkswagens helped), his freedom to innovate at what was otherwise a buttoned-down company, and the importance of a brand-new style of chip development—as well as the 8086 feature that he called SEX.
PCWorld: For history’s sake, when were you born?
Stephen Morse: I was born in Brooklyn in May 1940.
PCW: What inspired you to get involved in electronics?
SM: I was always fascinated by electricity, as far back as I can remember. I recall in sixth grade taking out whatever books I could find in the library on the topic. In junior high I asked my mother what field could I go into that would combine my love of electricity with my strong ability in mathematics. “Electrical engineering,” she replied. From then on my career course was charted, and I never deviated—I went on to get a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a PhD, all in electrical engineering.
PCW: What was the first computer you ever used?
SM: Computer courses were unheard of when I did my undergraduate work, and even in graduate school the only exposure that I had to programming was an after-hours noncredit course on Fortran. At the conclusion of that course, we were allowed to run just one program on the school’s IBM 650. Of course we didn’t run it ourselves—we punched the program onto a deck of cards and handed the deck to a computer operator. We never even got to see the machine. That was in 1962.
PCW: When did you begin working at Intel?
SM: I began at Intel in May 1975.
PCW: How did you get the job?
SM: Prior to Intel, I had been working for the General Electric R&D Center in Schenectady, where I had single-handedly designed and implemented a complete software support system for a new innovation at that time: a computer on a card. When I decided I could no longer take the cold winters of upstate New York and wanted to move back to sunny California (I had taught at UC Berkeley prior to joining GE), I looked into what companies in the Bay Area were doing related work. I found a relatively unheard of company, called Intel, that was involved with computers-on-a-chip, so I decided to send my resume. The company had a whole team of engineers doing the same things that I was doing by myself at GE, so we had a lot in common, and they made me an offer. I don’t know if it was my microprocessor experience that got me the job, or the fact that I was very involved with Volkswagen engines in those days and the hiring manager blew the exhaust valve on the number-three cylinder of his VW bus a week after he interviewed me.