The chip that Jack built

In late June, a little lonely “filler” item appeared unexpectedly in my local paper.

Oct 1st, 2005

By Jeff Bairstow

In late June, a little lonely “filler” item appeared unexpectedly in my local paper. It read, in its entirety, “Jack St. Clair Kilby passed away June 20, 2005, in Dallas, TX, following a brief battle with cancer. In 2000, Jack Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit.”

There it was, a brief dispassionate factual statement about a great American inventor-perhaps the Thomas A. Edison of his day-summing up a monumental life’s work in a mere 20 words or so. I was somewhat stunned but I was not really surprised-great engineers like Jack Kilby hardly ever make the national newspaper headlines or the six-o-clock TV news.

It’s impossible to do Jack Kilby sufficient justice in the limited space of this column, but I recommend that you read broadcaster T.R. Reid’s excellent story of the integrated circuit (IC): The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution. (Random House, New York, NY, 2001), which is still available in paperback. The book chronicles the lives and times of two engineers whose contributions have truly revolutionized the world we live in today.

The other American, of course, was Robert Noyce, one of the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor and, later, Intel. The “mayor of Silicon Valley,” as Noyce was so often dubbed, was also an inventor of the monolithic IC about the same time as Kilby’s work surfaced. Noyce, too, truly deserved a Nobel Prize but, sadly, he died unexpectedly in 1990, ten years before Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize. The awards are not given posthumously.

I met Kilby only once, in the late 1960’s when I was a very wet-behind-the-ears reporter for Electronic Design magazine. I covered an annual meeting in Dallas that Texas Instruments (TI) sponsored for the trade press. At the time, I had little idea of Kilby’s impressive stature in the microelectronics field and so I asked a number of pretty dumb questions that the great man answered briefly and rather brusquely. The answers he gave were mostly one word, “Yes,” or “No,” and an occasional “Maybe.” It was one tough interview for the cub reporter. I’ve since learned that this interview was pretty much par for the course.

When I was first introduced to Kilby he appeared to be a big man (maybe 6 ft 6 in.) who seemed somewhat uncomfortable with his celebrity status. I had the distinct impression that he would much prefer to be at work in his laboratory rather than pressed into the public arena and having to face a bunch of skeptical reporters. On the other hand, he delighted in having visitors come to his lab and, so I’m told, once there, he became almost loquacious.

Kilby went to work for TI in 1958. That summer, he first developed the ideas that led to the IC. “I was sitting at a desk, probably stayed there a little longer than usual,” he recalled in a 1980 interview. “Most of it formed pretty clearly during the course of that day. When I was finished, I had some drawings in a notebook, which I showed my supervisor when he returned. There was some slight skepticism, but basically they realized its importance.”

Note the remark about “a little longer than usual.” I’m willing to bet he was there well into the night if not the early morning.

Now, building on the ideas that came from the tiny chip that Jack built, microelectronic devices are a huge $200 billion business and their manufacture and applications are growing like wildfire. By some estimates, these devices have enabled an enormous $2 trillion electronic-equipment market worldwide. But, I’m pretty sure that, if confronted with these numbers, Jack would have just shrugged his shoulders and whistled “Dixie.”

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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