In 1958, a little-known engineer at Texas Instruments completed a modest experiment that would shape the electronics landscape for decades to come. Jack St. Clair Kilby successfully miniaturized a complete electronic circuit onto a tiny chip no larger than a pencil eraser. This revolutionary invention, the integrated circuit, paved the way for modern computing technology as we know it.
So who was this engineering genius Jack Kilby, and how did his integrated circuit — or microchip — fundamentally transform technology? This article explores Kilby‘s life story, the context leading up to his breakthrough invention, how his microchip worked, and the tremendous impact it has had on electronics and computing over the past 60+ years.
Overview of Jack Kilby and His Revolutionizing Invention
Jack Kilby (1923-2005) was an American electrical engineer who spent most of his career working at Texas Instruments. He is best known for inventing the integrated circuit in 1958. This milestone made it possible to cram an entire electronic circuit with multiple components (transistors, resistors, capacitors) into a tiny chip made of semiconductor material like silicon or germanium.
Previously, miniature circuits had to be painstakingly assembled by hand using individual microscopically small components wired together. Kilby eliminated this cumbersome process by building all necessary elements simultaneously on a single silicon substrate through semiconductor manufacturing processes.
While Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor also independently invented the integrated circuit shortly after Kilby, Kilby‘s design got there first. The integrated circuit would later become universally known as the microchip. This game-changing invention enabled the miniaturization and affordability of electronics like calculators, computers, and more. For their breakthrough contribution, Kilby and Noyce went on to share the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Early Life and Influences
Jack Kilby grew up in Great Bend, Kansas where he was born in 1923. His father ran the local power company, and Kilby took an early interest in electrical engineering and radio communications.
As a teenager during an ice storm that caused power outages, Kilby was fascinated observing his father coordinate crews via ham radio. This inspired Kilby to get an amateur radio license himself which led to hands-on electronics experience assembling transmitters and receivers.
|Kilby born in Jefferson City, Missouri||1923|
|Family relocates to Great Bend, Kansas||Early childhood|
|Ice storm gives Kilby exposure to radios||Late 1930s|
|Kilby attends University of Illinois||1941|
|Serves in U.S. Army Signal Corps||1943 – 1947|
|Earns B.S. in Electrical Engineering||1947|
|Starts career at Centralab division of Globe Union||1947|
During an interview in the 1980s, Kilby recalled how these formative experiences paved the way for his future breakthrough:
"It allowed me to learn about capacitors and resistors and how circuits worked and things like that. Components were very expensive during the Depression, so amateur radio people swapped parts around and built radios out of junkyard parts…"
This early electronics tinkering and radio repair work gave Kilby practical engineering knowledge that he would later apply to revolutionary effect.
The Tyranny of Numbers – What Was the Technical Challenge?
When Kilby began his career in the late 1940s, engineers were seeking to shrink down electronic circuits which until then relied on bulky, failure-prone vacuum tubes. The recent invention of the transistor enabled faster, smaller, more reliable circuits. However, connecting individual microscopic transistors and components together was extremely challenging.
Kilby described this persistent industry roadblock referred to as the "tyranny of numbers" in a 1984 interview:
"[Y]ou can make a transistor about as small as the head of a pin. But you have to connect that to other electronic devices… So you end up with not much decrease in size."
Here‘s a summary of limitations engineers like Kilby faced:
|Vacuum Tubes||Discrete Transistors|
|Fragile glass||Smaller than vacuum tubes but still pretty big|
|Power-hungry||More energy efficient than tubes|
|Short lifespans due to burning out||More reliable than tubes|
|Produce waste heat||Still required manual assembly of individual parts|
|Hard to reliably connect microscopic components|
Kilby realized that to take the next leap forward, a new approach was needed to overcome this tyranny of numbers. Rather than connecting multiple discrete parts, he conceived of making an entire circuit as a unified whole using semiconductor manufacturing processes. This idea would lead him to the integrated circuit breakthrough.
Kilby‘s Eureka Moment – Invention of the Integrated Circuit
When Kilby joined Texas Instruments in 1958, the company encouraged him to solve the challenge of miniaturization and building complete electronic circuits on a tiny chip. Unlike his previous employers, TI gave him the creative freedom to pursue this goal.
By September of that year, Kilby had succeeded in building the first integrated circuit. He did this by constructing all required components like transistors and resistors out of a single piece of semiconductor material, eliminating the need to wire together separate parts.
On September 12, 1958, Kilby demonstrated a working integrated circuit in the form of an oscillator. While primitive compared to modern microchips with billions of transistors, this first IC proved the concept and sparked the integrated circuit revolution. Kilby had solved the tyranny of numbers by essentially printing an entire schematic onto a tiny chip!
Here is a diagram of the specific circuit Kilby built that fateful day:
Kilby‘s first integrated circuit built on September 12, 1958
His colleagues were amazed at this breakthrough, with one stating "This did it! This solved the problem!" The IC was made from a sliver of germanium half the size of a paper clip.
While Noyce at Fairchild made similar integrated circuits shortly after, Kilby got there first. Kilby filed for a patent on February 6, 1959 which was granted as US Patent 3,138,743 in 1964 titled "Miniaturized Electronic Circuits". This would colloquially become known as the invention of the microchip.
Real-World Impact – How Kilby‘s IC Transformed Technology
Kilby‘s integrated circuit led to a sweeping miniaturization revolution. Within just a few years, applications emerged shrinking devices previously unimaginable into palm-sized gadgets.
For example, the pocket calculator. Kilby‘s early ICs like the Cal-Tech prototype in 1966 enabled handheld calculators by the early 1970s. These replaced giant computers that previously filled entire rooms!
Military applications were also an early integrated circuit adopter. Missile guidance systems and battlefield computers could now be produced small and rugged enough to deploy in the field.
|Application||Size Before IC||Size After IC|
|Hearing aid||Large bulky unit worn around neck||Tiny in-ear unit|
|Calculator||Room-sized computers||Palm-sized handheld device|
|Missile guidance||Occupied large racks||Computer-on-a-chip|
This miniaturization led to exponential increases in computing power over ensuing decades while costs plummeted. The microchip built upon by countless engineers after Kilby is what made today‘s laptops, smartphones, and technology wonders possible!
Later Innovations from Jack Kilby
In addition to the integrated circuit, Kilby made several other pivotal contributions during his long tenure at Texas Instruments (TI)…
Thermal Printer – Kilby invented the thermal printer which allowed portable data terminals to print digital output on heat-sensitive paper.
Pocket Calculator – Kilby helped pioneer early handheld calculators, starting with the Cal-Tech prototype in 1967 which evolved into the Pocketronic consumer product released by TI in 1971.
Military ICs – Kilby designed ICs for early battlefield computers and missile guidance systems, bringing digital targeting and navigation capabilities to the front lines.
Solar Cells – From 1970-75 during a leave of absence from TI, Kilby researched silicon solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity. He licensed some early solar panel innovations.
Engineering Education – Later in his career, Kilby shared his insights teaching electrical engineering at Texas A&M University from 1978 to 1984.
Honors for the Microchip‘s Inventor
For conceiving the microchip that powered the digital revolution, Jack Kilby earned prestigious honors including:
- 1966: Received the Franklin Institute‘s Stuart Ballantine Medal alongside Robert Noyce for their semiconductor achievements.
- 1978: The first recipient of the IEEE Cledo Brunetti Award.
- 1982: Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
- 2000: Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics which he shared with Robert Noyce.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Kilby generously acknowledged both Noyce‘s contributions and other engineers who built upon their early ICs to make chips with hundreds and then thousands of components.
Kilby‘s invention of the integrated circuit ranks among the most pivotal advances not just in engineering, but human history. His legacy continues today every time people use computers, smartphones, appliances, vehicles, and the myriad technologies dependent on microchips.