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Jack Kilby and the Integrated Circuit

By Harriet Baskas, KERA

Dallas, TX –

Very early one morning in October 2000, Jack Kilby's phone kept ringing. Unfortunately, he didn't hear it. Later that day, the tall, unassuming inventor of the micro-chip, or integrated circuit, appeared before reporters. Kilby told them he'd missed the official call from Sweden telling him he'd won the Nobel Prize in Physics. He'd turned off his hearing aids before going to bed.

Kilby: When I woke up and got connected I got a call from a European reporter who told me the news. [Reporter] And what did you do when you got the call? [Kilby] Got up and made coffee [laughter]

That low-key response didn't surprise author T.R. Reid, who considers Kilby an unsung hero of the 20th century. In his book about the microchip, Reid describes how, in 1958 transistor radios were becoming portable, but TV's were still furniture-sized appliances. Computers were room-sized machines. And Jack Kilby was just one of many engineers butting heads with a problem dubbed the tyranny of numbers.

Reid: In the late 50's you could design a computer that could do anything. But no one could build those computers because they all had transistors and each transistor had three wires and they had to be wired together.

There may have been too many parts and too many wires, but there was a solution. And Janet Kilby says her dad found it shortly after starting work at Texas Instruments.

Janet Kilby: TI had an annual vacation policy at this time where everyone clears out for two weeks during the summer. And my father had not been there long enough to earn this vacation. He had all this peace and quiet for 2 weeks and it was during that time that he developed the concept of the microchip.

That concept, says T.R. Reid, was a totally new way of making the transistors, resistors and the wires that went into each computer circuit.

Reid: Every computer at that time had miles and miles of wiring inside it, and Jack said, "Why do we need the wires? If I make all the parts out of the same material, I could just carve them into one block of material and no wires!" And that was a totally crazy idea.

But it worked.

Reid: Jack Kilby took the tyranny of numbers and reduced the number to one. There's one chip with all the parts on it and no wires. And once you did that then you could put a computer in the nose cone of a rocket that could take you to the moon.

The invention of the microchip was a giant leap forward. And it sparked the race to make tinier and ever mightier electronics of all kinds. But Texas Instruments had competition. In California, an engineer named Robert Noyce had the same idea at about the same time. However, Janet Kilby says her Dad never tried to take all the credit.

Janet Kilby: The way my father explained it was that dad had worked on the original concept but Robert Noyce's concept was better for manufacturing. And I know that when he was in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize he said he felt like if Bob Noyce had been alive he would have definitely shared the prize with him.

So it was a humble and low-key Jack Kilby who told reporters he was honored to win a Nobel Prize in Physics 42 years after inventing the microchip. He added that while the electronics revolution seemed well under way...

Kilby: I'm perhaps the only person in the room without a cell phone.

For KERA, I'm Harriet Baskas.

This story was made possible in part by The Summerlee Foundation.