Few people create something that revolutionizes the world. Jack St. Clair Kilby, from whose imagination sprang the integrated circuit or microchip, is one of those people.
More than 40 years later, modern technology is dependent on revised versions of Mr. Kilby’s creation, says Michael Jenkins, chief technology officer at Xybernaut Corp. in Fairfax.
“He’s obviously a legend,” Mr. Jenkins says. “Most businesses, even ones that aren’t in the computer industry, revolve around the microchip. Ordinary things like faxes, phones, pagers and Palm Pilots have them. You even have microchips in toasters.”
Xybernaut inserts the circuits in the devices it manufacturers.
“We have microchips in our central processing units,” he says. “Various other chips we use are based on the concept.”
Mr. Kilby, who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 2000, celebrates his 78th birthday today. He keeps the prize in a safe-deposit box.
David Colton, vice president for strategic initiatives for the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, says there are 20 billion microprocessors in the world. Microprocessors are microchips that process information.
“Only 3 billion of them are in personal computers,” Mr. Colton says. “Jack Kilby invented something that has greatly affected the gross domestic product and productivity gains in the 1990s. We are just beginning to explore ubiquitous computing, which would allow all the microchips to talk to each other, which would allow even greater productivity.”
Mr. Kilby, who is retired and resides in Dallas, was working for Texas Instruments in Dallas when he created the integrated circuit using a slice of germanium on Sept. 12, 1958.
Controversy ensued in 1959 after Mr. Kilby and Texas Instruments filed a patent for the circuit. Robert N. Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor Corp., headquartered in South Portland, Maine, filed a patent about four months later for a device similar to Mr. Kilby’s. In 1969, the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent appeals settled the dispute, saying Texas Instruments would be paid for the design of the integrated circuit and Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. would be paid for the manufacturing process and interconnection techniques. In 1968, the late Mr. Noyce co-founded Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif. Today, most people agree Mr. Kilby and Mr. Noyce are co-inventors of the microchip.
Since the chip’s creation, Mr. Kilby has been grouped with geniuses such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. He says he didn’t comprehend the full effect of the invention at the time, but it lowered the cost of the production of electronics, which has vastly expanded the field.
“I thought it would be important for the electronics business as we knew it then,” he says. “It’s hard to tell what modern microelectronics would look like without it. It’s possible that the microchip would have been invented anyway. If not, there would be other forms of circuit integration that would be used.”
The chip Mr. Kilby designed was four-tenths of an inch long and one-eighth of an inch wide. Modern microchips are about six times more complex than his creation. They also are much smaller. The devices are made from silicon to form conventional electronic components, such as resistors, capacitors and transistors, he says.
“The process has been refined and polished so that they yield large numbers of good devices,” he says. “There has been tremendous progress. Eventually we reach physical limits as to how small these things can be made. We’re not close to that yet.”
It took Mr. Kilby about a month to complete the actual design of the chip. Much of his work after receiving his master’s degree in science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison involved the subject.
Ironically, Mr. Kilby wasn’t accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. He says he holds no grudges against the college. “They were interested in how well students were prepared for their very strenuous course. It was pretty clear I was not. I don’t know that it’s any reflection on MIT or on me. It just reflected the state of affairs in 1941 with me,” Mr. Kilby says.
In 1967, the integrated circuit led to Mr. Kilby’s co-invention of the hand-held calculator with two other Texas Instruments employees, Jerry D. Merryman and James H. Van Tassel.
“We had shown that microchips were useful for military and industrial applications,” Mr. Kilby says. “The company wanted a product that would show its usefulness for consumers. The calculator was the logical choice.”
Dan Johnson, associate editor of Futurist magazine in Bethesda, says microchips will continue to appear in every area of life.
“Computers built into clothing are being very seriously discussed,” Mr. Johnson says. “Some people think that you will have computers on your eyeglasses. The long-term effect is having computer chips in the body. A lot of people would resist that, but there is a school of thought that there will be human and machine merging in the future.”
Peter Dependahl of Optisphere Networks in Boca Raton, Fla., which is a subsidiary of Siemens in Reston, says he would be in another line of work without the microchip. His company specializes in building telecommunications systems.
“For my whole career, I have been working with the design of the integrated circuit,” Mr. Dependahl says. “I have designed microchips. Now I’m developing systems where microchips have a key role in the success of the products.”
Mr. Dependahl says his company buys microchips and integrates them into its systems. It also designs special ones to differentiate itself from the competition. “Without the microchip, there is no system,” he says. “It’s essential.”
Paul Ceruzzi, curator of aerospace computing and electronics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, says, the museum features an exhibit called “Beyond the Limits, Flight Enters the Computer Age.” It shows how the integrated circuit is critical to contemporary flight.
“The microchip has created a huge revolution in aircraft and space flight,” Mr. Ceruzzi says. “For example, modern airplanes are flown by computers, and not directly controlled by the pilot. The U.S. Air Force and [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] were the first customers for the chip when it was invented.”
Even animals can carry microchips, Mr. Ceruzzi says.
“My cat has one in her fur,” he says. “You can put them in your pet. So if she ever gets lost, you can wave a wand over her and know whose cat it is. Cattle always have them in their ears for the same purpose.”
Mr. Kilby advises people who are interested in science to find a subject that is interesting and pursue it as far as possible.
“I’m very glad to have had a part in getting the microchip started,” Mr. Kilby says. “I also realize that this was not a one-man effort. What we have today as microchips are the result of the work of tens of thousands of the world’s best engineers.”