The story of Jack Kilby: from the tyranny of numbers to microchips

Many electronic devices (processors, memories, radio transceivers, amplifiers) are built on a small silicon chip called an integrated circuit . This name derives from the fact that all the elementary components (diodes, transistors, resistors, capacitors) necessary to create an electronic circuit, and their interconnections, are integrated on the same silicon chip. The invention of the integrated circuit dates back to 1958 at the hands of Jack Kilby.

Jack Kilby joins Texas Instrument

Jack Kilby was a man with a sunburned face; he had worked for ten years at a major technology company before landing a position at Texas Instrument. An electrical engineering graduate, Kilby was hired to be part of a team dedicated to solving a circuit design challenge known as the tyranny of numbers. Silicon transistors were cheap enough and worked well, but more advanced computers required a large number of them.

At that time, factories like Texas Instrument hired hundreds of low-level, low-paying employees, mostly women, who spent their days in huge warehouses, sweating in their dust suits and hunched over a microscope to weld silicon parts. The process was as expensive as it was inefficient because it was almost inevitable that the frail connections of the circuits would break or come off, forcing the operation to be done all over again. Yet there was no alternative as production really needed several transistors.

The invention of the first integrated circuit

Kilby arrived at Texas Instrument in June and was not eligible for summer vacation as a new employee. So when the workers left for the summer holidays, Kilby found himself alone in his workshop. Those days spent in silence convinced him that using such a crowd of people for production was a great idiocy. Without the intrusion of his superiors, he had free moments to design everything in his head, namely the integrated circuit .

Jack Kilby
The first integrated circuit made by Kilby. Credits: Smithsonian Institute, Stan Augarten

Transistors weren't the only devices to be assembled by hand. The circuits also included resistors and capacitors connected by a huge amount of copper wires; it all looked like a tiny plate of spaghetti. Kilby believed that it was better to eliminate the assembly of separate devices and instead make each device (resistor, transistor and capacitor) by engraving it, in a single piece of semiconductor.

Since Kilby was convinced of the use of silicon as a material to make resistors and capacitors, he built his prototype with germanium. The new invention of the integrated circuit freed the technicians from the tiring assembly procedure. Since the individual components were made from a single block, no technician had to weld them anymore. Furthermore, new manufacturing technologies made it possible to automate the engraving process and reduce the size of the devices: it was the first step towards the birth of microchips.

Jack Kilby Awards and Accolades

One of Shockley's technicians, a few months later, filed a patent for a very similar but more detailed design and stole the commercial rights from Texas Instrument. For this reason, Kilby did not receive official recognition at the time, but was carried on the palm of the hand by all his colleagues. The greatest recognition of his idea is given by the fact that even today, many years later, microchips are still built according to his project , which is quite remarkable in a sector that generally renews itself in a few months. Only in 2000, with great delay, was he awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention of the integrated circuit. Kilby's biggest mistake was the use of germanium to make his circuits. Indeed, in the savage struggle of commercial competition, silicon, which is enormously cheaper and easier to find, won.

Jack Kilby, inventor of the first microchip.

The article The story of Jack Kilby: from the tyranny of numbers to microchips comes from Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .