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On This Day In 1958, A TI Engineer Invented A Chip That Changed The World

Texas Instruments

Texas Instruments is celebrating the North Texas man who made the integrated circuit – the microchip — possible. On Sept. 12, 1958, Jack Kilby, a TI engineer, invented the integrated circuit.

It would revolutionize the electronics industry, helping make cell phones and computers widespread today.

To honor him, Texas Instruments held its first Jack Kilby Day on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

It didn’t take long for Kilby to make his mark at TI. Just months after joining the Dallas-based company in 1958, he performed a successful laboratory demonstration on his first microchip on Sept. 12. 

Kilby later helped invent the hand-held calculator and the thermal printer used in portable data terminals.

In 2000, Kilby won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Kilby died in 2005 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 81.

What if he had gone on vacation?

Credit a Texas Instruments vacation policy for playing a role in the invention. At the time, TI employees were required to take two weeks off in the summer. Kilby hadn’t been at the company long enough to take his vacation. So he had two weeks of downtime at TI. During that time, he got to work on the integrated circuit.

What would have happened if Kilby had gone on vacation?

"The Chip That Jack Built"

Watch this short KERA video, produced in 2009, that explores Kilby and his integrated circuit.

Look at the first integrated circuit

Credit Texas Instruments
This is Jack Kilby's first integrated circuit. He invented it at Texas Instruments in 1958. From TI: "Comprised of only a transistor and other components on a slice of germanium, Kilby's invention, 7/16-by-1/16-inches in size, revolutionized the electronics industry. The roots of almost every electronic device we take for granted today can be traced back to Dallas more than 40 years ago."

Competition: Another inventor

Shortly after Kilby created his microchip, Robert Noyce with Fairchild Semiconductor created his own version of the integrated circuit. Noyce’s was considered easier to manufacture.

The New York Times noted in 2005: “In 1959 Mr. Kilby and Dr. Noyce, then with Fairchild Semiconductor, were named as inventors in their companies' applications for patents for the integrated circuit. After years of legal battles, Fairchild and Texas Instruments decided to cross-license their technologies, ultimately creating a world information industries market now worth more than $1 trillion annually.”

A global hero

T.R. Reid, author of The Chip, offered this perspective in the KERA video: “If you look back to the first great wave of American innovation – I’m talking about Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, engineers who changed the daily life of the world with a good idea. They were global heroes. Jack Kilby changed the daily life of the world just as spectacularly as Thomas Edison did and Henry Ford did and nobody’s ever heard of him. … Probably the most unassuming Nobel laureate in the history of physics.”

The problem: “The tyranny of numbers”

Credit Texas Instruments
From Texas Instruments: Jack Kilby recorded the successful demonstration of the first integrated circuit in his engineering notebook. Signed JS Kilby, the page in his notebook is dated Sept. 12, 1958.

Reid continued: "In the early ‘50s, you could design a computer that could do anything, but you couldn’t build it. There were too many separate parts that had to be wired together. Just the numbers of parts and connections were too great. The common name for this problem was the tyranny of numbers. We can perceive of that device but we can’t build it because the numbers are too great. Jack Kilby was among engineers in the world looking for a solution to the problem.”

The solution: One chip

Reid: "Every computer at the time had miles and miles of wiring inside. Jack said: ‘Why do we need the wires? If I make parts out of all of the same material, I could carve them into a block of that material and no wires.' It was a totally crazy idea. Nobody had ever thought of this before. Jack Kilby took the tyranny of numbers and reduced the number to one. One chip with all the parts on it and no wires. That was his solution. Once you did that you could put a computer in the nose cone of a rocket that could take you to the moon.”

Kilby's impact 

"The impact on the world of Jack Kilby’s idea has been spectacular," Reid said in the KERA video. "If it weren’t for the integrated circuit, Jack Kennedy’s promise that we’ll go to the moon in a decade wouldn’t happen … It’s hard to think of any scientific or engineering breakthrough in the 20th century that had more impact on our lives than the microchip."

"A very practical person"

Credit KERA
Janet Kilby, Jack Kilby's daughter.

Janet Kilby reflected on life with her father, Jack Kilby. “I never realized that other people’s dads couldn’t fix the TV," she said in the KERA video. "I have this memory of him with his head in the back of the opened-up television and my mom running for the circuit breaker afraid he was going to electrocute himself.”

She added: “My father had over 50 patents, but I believe his favorite invention was the chip. Because it was useful. He was a very practical person. He always said everyone should make a contribution in life and I think that’s what really powered his inventiveness.”

In his own words

When Kilby won the Nobel Prize, he wrote about his life. Read that here.

Learn more

Learn more about Kilby and his invention on TI's website.

About Jack Kilby Day 2014

The City of Dallas issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 12 as Jack Kilby Day. To celebrate, Kilby’s Nobel Prize was displayed at TI’s Forest Lane campus in Dallas.

TI marked the day on social media with the hashtag #JackKilbyDay. TI employees wore Jack Kilby Day shirts and replicas of his distinctive glasses. They also celebrated with a photo station where they took selfies wearing Kilby’s glasses.

Videos: TI celebrates Jack Kilby

Here are a couple of short videos from TI about Jack Kilby — and about TI employees working on hands-on STEM activities with middle school students:


Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.