Nichols College News

Computing Pioneer Leaves Mark on Freshman Honors Class

A freshman Business Ethics class will get a firsthand look at entrepreneurship, leadership, and ethical dilemmas later this term, courtesy of a founding member of Silicon Valley.

Edward Clarke, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at neighboring Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a co-founder more than 50 years ago of microprocessor giant National Semiconductor, will share his professional experiences and challenges at the beginning of the computer chip age.

Clarke will be reprising his visits last spring to the same class—the first in a sequence of courses from freshman through senior year in the Nichols College Honors Program.

“He was an entrepreneur, and a captain of industry,” says History and Government Professor Edward Warren, who has taught the honors course for the past half dozen years. “He and others invented the properties of the modern transistor, which was really the foundation for companies like Microsoft.”

Warren also sees Clarke as a role model for the students in his course. “He’s commanding and authoritative, and he impresses them with his energy, determination, and prowess as a scientist and manager,” Warren notes.

In keeping with the course objectives, Clarke focused last spring on ethics, integrity, and ownership. At issue was the significance of proprietary information, which came into play when Clarke and several colleagues took some of his own innovations from previous employer Sylvania to start National Semiconductor.

Those innovations were considered “trade secrets,” Clarke admits, “But there’s an ethical issue. Is it clear that the company you work for owns your invention? He answers that question by noting that his employer was not using that knowledge effectively. “We said, ‘If you’re working for a company making serious mistakes and not changing what they’re doing, we’ll move on and move forward,’” he explains.

“This is the momentum that created the (microprocessor) industry. People left large American companies because those companies refused to look into the future and move at the pace we wanted,” Clarke continues. “That was the culture we broke.” In his class last spring, with Clarke’s company as an example, Warren examined the problems that occur when new technology is patented. “Would you stultify growth by trying to patent that technology and prevent innovation?” Warren asked the students.

Clarke, meanwhile, passed around documents related to critical points in his decision-making. “The students were handling real items, and I was letting them see the decisions we were making,” he says. He adds that Warren and he punctuated the class by holding a conversation with each other. “It turned out to be something other than a lecture,” Clarke says. “It was very nice.”

Clarke’s advice to the freshman students: “Be flexible. Don’t be stuck in any one choice. And go where your talents are useful.”