Bob Noyce and some college buddies stole a small pig for a luau back in 1948, and he nearly got expelled from Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) because of it. Had he been, the U.S. economy in the late 20th century might have kept wobbling along indefinitely, stuck in the woeful ways of the 1970s.

Noyce managed to graduate from Grinnell and later did post-graduate work in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The year of the luau pig, 1948, was also the year the transistor was invented. Noyce learned about it from one of his Grinnell physics professors, but practically no one else cared about the new invention, which performed the same function as vacuum tubes.

Even Noyce’s MIT professors initially weren’t interested in the transistor, which they considered a novelty. But within a few short years, Noyce, armed with a doctorate, would head to Palo Alto, Calif., where he and colleagues would begin groundbreaking work in the semiconductor business under the tutelage of William Shockley, who in 1956 won the Nobel Prize in physics for having invented the transistor.

Shockley was a scientific genius but utterly incompetent as a manager of people. Noyce, on the other hand, had genius of both kinds. It wasn’t long before he parted ways with Shockley and went on to become a billionaire as the co-founder of Intel. He and other colleagues realized that in their field, brainpower was all the capital you needed.

Shockley’s sins as a manager included instituting a rigid system that, in effect, showed disrespect to the engineers in his employ. He posted everyone’s salaries, initiated peer reviews and even had everyone take a lie detector test when he suspected someone was sabotaging a project.

When Noyce left Shockley, he ran his new enterprises with a wide-open entrepreneurial spirit that became legendary. Noyce became known as the father of Silicon Valley, where bright people weren’t beaten down by traditional corporate culture — and where the engine of the U.S. economy would ultimately reside.

I didn’t know a thing about Bob Noyce until I recently read “Two Young Men Who Went West,” part of Tom Wolfe’s newest collection of writings called “Hooking Up.”

Wolfe recounts the fascinating life of Noyce, who went almost unnoticed by the media (compared to, say, Bill Gates) before he died in 1990.

But what I like best about Wolfe’s treatment of Noyce and the fundamental spirit of Silicon Valley are the sharp contrasts he makes between the new entrepreneurs and the old business philosophies back East.

Wolfe can be merciless with his trenchant observations. At one point in his story about Noyce he rather matter-of-factly states that “there was no one back East who understood how to run a corporation in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century.”

“Back East they had never progressed beyond the year 1940. Consequently, they were still hobbled by all the primitive stupidities of bureaucratism and labor-management battles. They didn’t have the foggiest comprehension of the Silicon Valley idea of a corporate community.”

And what was that community like? No reserved parking spaces. Very little formality. No stuffy preoccupation with establishing hierarchies.

“Noyce’s idea was that every employee should feel that he could go as far and as fast in this industry as his talent would take him,” Wolfe writes. “He didn’t want any employee to look at the structure of Intel and see a complex set of hurdles.”

I can’t help but wonder if more businesses would profit from such a philosophy. Sure, Noyce was dealing with very bright people — engineer brainiacs. Perhaps there’s a difference between managing such people and managing the local McDonald’s restaurant. But it’s only a matter of degree, I think.

Granting more responsibilities rather than fewer to middle managers or even those further down the corporate ladder can make all the difference in the world. It makes that ladder invisible and creates an internal motivation in the hearts and minds of employees.

In the produce business, family-run firms have been the rule for decades. That’s starting to change, and no doubt the inclination is to micromanage as things get ever larger and spiral out of the control of those who’ve always decided everything.

And then, of course, you have consolidation of retail supermarket chains and foodservice distributorships. A trend toward centralized buying. The age of the bean counters, some have called it. Bob Noyce wasn’t a bean counter. He might have looked at what’s going on in the produce business and asked some hard questions.

Like, “With all your concern about the immediate bottom line, what are you doing to cultivate your human capital?”