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KILBY, Jack: The chip that Jack built

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1950 | 1960 | KILBY
Personaje: KILBY, Jack.

It was a relatively simple device that Jack Kilby showed to a handful of co-workers gathered in TI's semiconductor lab years ago -- only a transistor and other components on a slice of germanium. Little did this group of onlookers know, but Kilby's invention, 7/16-by-1/16-inches in size and called an integrated circuit, was about to revolutionize the electronics industry.

It was in a relatively deserted laboratory at TI's brand new Semiconductor Building where Jack Kilby first hit on the idea of the integrated circuit. In July 1958, when most employees left for the traditional two-week vacation period, Kilby -- as a new employee with no vacation -- stayed to man the shop.

What caused Kilby to think along the lines that eventually resulted in the integrated circuit? Like many inventors, he set out to solve a problem. In this case, the problem was called "the tyranny of numbers."

For almost 50 years after the turn of the 20th century, the electronics industry had been dominated by vacuum tube technology. But vacuum tubes had inherent limitations. They were fragile, bulky, unreliable, power hungry, and produced considerable heat.

It wasn't until 1947, with the invention of the transistor by Bell Telephone Laboratories, that the vacuum tube problem was solved. Transistors were miniscule in comparison, more reliable, longer lasting, produced less heat, and consumed less power. The transistor stimulated engineers to design ever more complex electronic circuits and equipment containing hundreds or thousands of discrete components such as transistors, diodes, rectifiers and capacitors. But the problem was that these components still had to be interconnected to form electronic circuits, and hand-soldering thousands of components to thousands of bits of wire was expensive and time-consuming. It was also unreliable; every soldered joint was a potential source of trouble. The challenge was to find cost-effective, reliable ways of producing these components and interconnecting them.

One stab at a solution was the Micro-Module program, sponsored by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The idea was to make all the components a uniform size and shape, with the wiring built into the components. The modules then could be snapped together to make circuits, eliminating the need for wiring the connections.

TI was working on the Micro-Module program when Kilby joined the company in 1958. Because of his work with Centralab in Milwaukee, Kilby was familiar with the "tyranny of numbers" problem facing the industry. But he didn't think the Micro-Module was the answer -- it didn't address the basic problem of large quantities of components in elaborate circuits.

So Kilby began searching for an alternative, and in the process decided the only thing a semiconductor house could make cost effectively was a semiconductor. "Further thought led me to the conclusion that semiconductors were all that were really required that resistors and capacitors [passive devices], in particular, could be made from the same material as the active devices [transistors]. I also realized that, since all of the components could be made of a single material, they could also be made in situ interconnected to form a complete circuit," Kilby wrote in a 1976 article titled "Invention of the IC."

Kilby began to write down and sketch out his ideas in July of 1958. By September, he was ready to demonstrate a working integrated circuit built on a piece of semiconductor material. Several executives, including former TI Chairman Mark Shepherd, gathered for the event on September 12, 1958. What they saw was a sliver of germanium, with protruding wires, glued to a glass slide. It was a rough device, but when Kilby pressed the switch, an unending sine curve undulated across the oscilloscope screen. His invention worked -- he had solved the problem.

Kilby had made a big breakthrough. But while the U.S. Air Force showed some interest in TI's integrated circuit, industry reacted skeptically. Indeed the IC and its relative merits "provided much of the entertainment at major technical meetings over the next few years," Kilby wrote.

The integrated circuit first won a place in the military market through programs such as the first computer using silicon chips for the Air Force in 1961 and the Minuteman Missile in 1962. Recognizing the need for a "demonstration product" to speed widespread use of the IC, Patrick E. Haggerty, former TI chairman, challenged Kilby to design a calculator as powerful as the large, electro-mechanical desktop models of the day, but small enough to fit in a coat pocket. The resulting electronic hand-held calculator, of which Kilby is a co-inventor, successfully commercialized the integrated circuit.
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