Jack St. Clair Kilby

You can take pride in the knowledge that your work will help to improve lives for generations to come.” President Bill Clinton in a letter to Jack Kilby congratulating him on being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics (December 2000).

Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit in 1958. Although a fairly simple device, it would make the laborious and thus expensive task of interconnecting multiple electronic components on a circuit board obsolete. Kilby’s chip revolutionized the electronics industry.

Jack St.Clair Kilby was born on November 8, 1923, in Jefferson City in Missouri. He grew up in Great Bend in Kansas, where the Arkansas river makes its great bend after coming out of the Rockies. After completing his schooling at Great Bend High School he went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he obtained his degree in Electrical engineering in 1947. His love for electronics and engineering originated at home where his father ran a small electric company.

In 1948 Kilby started working at Centralab in Milwaukee, a company that manufactured printed circuits and electronic parts for radios and televisions. While working there he continued his studies in the evenings at the University of Wisconsin which awarded him his master’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 1950. When in 1948 the trio Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley from Bell Lab announced their invention of the transistor, Kilby realised that vacuum tube technology, which he had been taught at university, had become obsolete. His work at Centralab involved design of printed circuits and, from 1952, developing transistors. With the increasing demand for miniaturization by the Ministry of Defense, especially for the U.S. Air Force’s ballistic missiles and planes, he realised that Centralab would have to invest heavily in order to pursue this development. Because this was beyond their capabilities, Kilby decided to join Texas Instruments in 1958 and relocated with his wife to Dallas, Texas.

From the left: resistor, printed circuit, circuit board, modern microchip with 42 million transistors.

At Texas Instruments

Following the invention of the transistor, which replaced the less reliable and heat producing vacuum tube, engineers started designing circuitry with ever-increasing complexity. These circuit boards consisted of numerous components, such as transistors, capacitors, resistors, diodes and other discrete components. The more complex these circuit board designs became, the more time-consuming it became to interconnect the thousands of components and hand-soldering them to all the individual pieces of wire. As the complexity increased, so did the failure rate because each soldering point was a potential point of failure. If a circuit board failed, it had to be replaced since that was cheaper than attempting to locate and repair the point of failure.

The microchip

Texas Instruments (TI) allowed Kilby to work on miniaturization of electronic components and he soon realised that the best way to solve this problem was to make the passive components (resistors and capacitors) from the same material as the active devices (transistors). In his 1976 article “Invention of the IC’ he wrote: “I also realised that, since all components could be made of a single material, they could also be made in situ interconnected to form a complete circuit”. By September 1958 he had solved the problem and was able to demonstrate his integrated circuit built on a single piece of germanium measuring 3/16 inch by 7/16 inch. This first integrated circuit contained one transistor, three resistors and one capacitor. Later integrated circuits would use silicon as its semiconductor material because germanium became problematic when heated. In February 1959 he filed a patent for his invention.

In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the computer microchip with a stamp. On the back it mentions both Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce
as the two inventors. Shown also is the FDC with this stamp and signed by Jack Kilby.

Shortly after Kilby’s invention – and independently from him – Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductors in Mountainview, California, developed a similar circuit but using silicon instead of germanium. He filed his patent in July 1959. Considering the financial rewards, the two companies later went to court to settle the issue of who was the real inventor of the integrated circuit. The court decided the two companies had to share the credit for this invention. The Nobel Prize committee decided otherwise in 2000 and honoured Kilby as the inventor of the integrated circuit. Kilby had registered more than 60 patents, one of them being for the thermal printer used in data terminals (1965).

The new integrated circuit – or microchip – was well received by the U.S. aerospace industries. It allowed the miniaturization they were so desperately looking for in projects such as the Minuteman missile. But TI was reluctant to rely on just the military for its market. In order to generate a wider market for its new technology, TI asked Kilby to design a small calculator which could fit in a coat pocket, but with the same power and facilities as the large electro-mechanical calculators used in company offices those days. Kilby’s subsequent invention of the electronic hand-held pocket calculator – invented in 1966 together with Jerry D. Merryman and James H. Van Tassel – showed the world that his integrated circuit could be successfully commercialized in many appliances. Kilby’s microchip became known as “the chip that changed the world”. When Texas Instruments opened its new $150 million Research & Development center in Dallas in 1977, they named it after the inventor of the microchip: the Kilby Center. An inscription in front of the building reads: “Here, Jack built the chip that changed the world”.

The success of Kilby’s integrated circuit was not only of enormous importance to Texas Instruments, but it also revolutionized the electronics industry. It ensured that computers would become smaller and cheaper, ultimately leading to the personal computers we know today. We not only find integrated circuits in computers, but also in our cars, kitchen appliances, watches, hearing aids, mobile phones, remote controls, televisions and a variety of other electronic equipment. It moved our world into the electronic era.

In 1970 Kilby took leave of absence from Texas Instruments and started working as an independent inventor. He researched the use of microchip technology in the generation of energy using solar power. From 1978 to 1984 he worked as a Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, where he spent most of his time on research. In 1980 he officially retired from TI.

Following a brief battle with cancer, Jack St. Clair Kilby passed away on June 20, 2005, in Dallas, Texas.

Jack Kilby honoured

Kilby has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Only the most important awards are mentioned here.
1966 – Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).
1966 – Was awarded the Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute.
1969 – Received the National Medal of Science.
1982 – Inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where he joined the ranks of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and other great minds.
1984 – Received the IEEE Centennial Medal.
1990 – Received the National Medal of Technology.
1990 – The Kilby Award foundation was established in his honour to recognize scientists who have made significant contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention and education.
2000 – Awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics “for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit.

In 1958, my goals were simple: to lower the cost, simplify the assembly, and make things smaller and more reliable. Although I do not consider myself responsible for all of the activity that has followed it has been very satisfying to witness the integrated circuit's evolution. I am pleased to have had even a small part in helping turn the potential of human creativity into practical reality.” Jack Kilby in his Nobel lecture.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2010

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