Invention of intergrated circuit Science

Jack Kilby chips in!

A 1958 prototype integrated circuit mounted on glass designed by Nobel Prize Physics winner Jack Kilby.   | Photo Credit: Matt Dunham

Last week we saw how binary numbers, when complemented with boolean algebra, laid the foundation for everything digital. While it is the logical basis on which the world as we know today is built, it still required the backing up of hardware equipment to go along with it.

Till the invention of transistors in 1947, electronics relied on vacuum tubes for almost half a century. The size, reliability and power consumption characteristics of transistors meant that they went a long way in replacing vacuum tubes, which had limitations. But another problem still remained.

In order to have technical advances, the electronic circuits involved became ever more complex, each of these having hundreds or thousands of discrete components. The fact that these components had to then be connected meant they had to be wired and soldered - an expensive, time-consuming and possibly unreliable process.

It was under this climate that Jack Kilby joined Texas Intruments (TI) in 1958. TI was working on the Micro-Module program that aimed at making components of uniform shape and size, which could be snapped together to form the circuits.

While all the employees left for their traditional two-week holiday period in July, Kilby — as a new hire without vacation — sat on the problem. It occurred to Kilby that the Micro-Module program didn’t address the larger problem of elaborate circuits with innumerable components.

His search for alternatives led him to the conclusion that semiconductors were all that were required. Kilby realised that passive devices (resistors and capacitors) and active devices (transistors) could be made of the same material and therefore also be interconnected to form a complete circuit.

Kilby sketched his ideas and by September had his prototype — a sliver of germanium with wires sticking out, glued to a glass — ready. In his demonstration, Kilby connected his chip to an oscilloscope and then pressed the switch to produce a continuous sine wave, thus ushering in a new era.

Do you know why?
While the Nobel Prize website acknowledges Kilby and Noyce as inventors of the integrated circuit, only Kilby received the Nobel Prize. Do you know why? Write to if you have the answer.

It is interesting to note that integrated circuits (IC) were co-invented at almost the same time. While Kilby came up with his prototype, Fairchild Semiconductor engineer Robert Noyce independently produced an IC that used silicon instead of germanium. Patent wars ensued before the two companies eventually agreed to cross-license their technologies.

Both Kilby and Noyce are credited with inventing the IC even though Noyce’s silicon chips eventually won over Kilby’s germanium. Kilby went on to share the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics, having seen the chip that he envisioned become a part of almost every aspect of our daily life.

On Thursday, June 19, a prototype designed by Kilby was put up on sale at Christie’s, a famous auction house. Built by Tom Yeargan, a member of the team that worked to implement Kilby’s theories, and now offered by his descendants, the IC was expected to fetch up to $2 million.

However, the chip remained unsold. Looks like the price to pay if you wish to own a piece of digital history is almost unreachable.

(Last week: 100 in binary form is 1100100 (64+32+4). Sai Shiva of Class IX, Teja Vidyalaya, Kodad was among the first to get it correct. Congratulations!)

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 5:33:17 PM |

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