Take a few moments to think about the complexity of the device you are using at this time–right now. Like most folks, we take our electronic gadgets for granted. The convenient, portable phones and computers we enjoy today were not even imaginable in the middle of the past century. The most advanced household items, the television and the radio were based on vacuum tube technology. In commercial settings, the adding machine and cash register were mechanical devices.
The dawn of our modern electronics age began in 1956 when Bell Laboratories successfully utilized semiconductor materials in the invention of the transistor. This invention triggered the first wave of electronics start-up companies and rapid technological development.
The early years of semiconductor development takes us to the summer of 1958 in the offices of Texas Instruments Company (TI) and the desk of a Jefferson, Missouri born engineer named Jack Kilby. This is the “critical mass” that led to the very first diagram of an integrated circuit, where all its components were constructed from the same material.
When Kilby was hired in 1958, TI had already thought up a concept to use transistors. Their attention was focused on the “Micro-Module” idea. The company wanted to make all the components the same size so they could then be snapped together to form circuits for various products. One problem remained, that of human assembly of each circuit by hand. How would TI solve the labor issue?
Kilby contemplated the problem for several days, then wrote down his thoughts about something he labeled “The Monolithic Idea”. This is the idea, that the parts of a circuit–transistors, capacitors, and resistors, can be made from the very same piece of material and included in a single micro-module or chip. He then drew a quick diagram for a basic electronic circuit that could use components constructed entirely of silicon.
In early September of 1958, Kilby grabbed a few germanium wafers from the production area to try out his idea. His first integrated circuit was only a tiny sliver of germanium, glued to a glass slide, with the circuit etched in by hand.
On September 12th, Kilby gathered TI’s executive staff for a demonstration of the componant. He connected his crude circuit to an oscilloscope and passed a current through it. The scope’s screen displayed a simple sine wave. That first sine wave changed the electronics world forever.
Unknown to Kilby, was Robert Noyce, an Iowa born transplant in Mountain View, California. Noyce arrived at the same idea for an integrated circuit around the same time as Kilby did. However, Noyce used silicon instead of germanium. Noyce’s development was more refined and could operate at a higher temperature. Noyce went on to co-found Intel Corporation in 1968, and became informally known as “The Mayor of Silicon Valley”.
For his theory and work on the integrated circuit and chips, Kilby was awarded a half share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics. The remaining two quarters went jointly to Zhores Alferov and Kerbert Kroemer for developing semiconductor structures used in high-speed electronics.
Kilby did not rest on his laurels. He went on to refine the integrated circuit and received several patents for his improvements. One of his designs was used in an experimental computer that TI built for the US Air Force in 1962. In 1965, Kilby invented the solid state thermal printer. Two years later, Kilby came up with the plans for the very first integrated circuit based electronic calculator. TI’s “Pocketronic” calculator circuit patent is used in most modern pocket calculators.
In 1970, Kilby started a leave of absence from TI in order to conduct independent research in solar power generation. He remained on the staff of TI as a semiconductor consultant. Kilby also worked as a professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University at College Station, Texas. Kilby finally retired from TI in 1983. The 81-year-old Jack Kilby died in Dallas, Texas on June 20, 2005.