He who integrated circuits

Jack St. Clair Kilby did not set out to change the world when he began tinkering with the idea of an integrated circuit back in the 1950s.

“In 1958 my goals were simple — lower the cost, simplify the assembly and make things faster and cheaper,” he said of the research effort he led at Texas Instruments that produced the first integrated circuit.

His work proved revolutionary anyway. “The innovation and development in the last 40 years has been more rapid and dramatic than in the entire 400 years since the term electricity was coined,” thanks to the invention of the integrated circuit, the winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics told an Engineering School audience at the annual Pender Award lecture March 21.

Like many technological advances, the integrated circuit grew out of military needs. Kilby referred to ENIAC, the electronic digital computer developed at Penn, as an example of the limits of vacuum tube technology, explaining that the armed forces were looking for smaller, more reliable and less costly electronic circuits and controls.

By the mid-1950s, several teams of researchers were at work on different means of achieving the military’s goal. The Texas Instruments team focused on using semiconductors, which the company already made cheaply, to make all the components of an electrical circuit — resistors, capacitors, diodes and transistors — and then to combine them on a single silicon wafer.

Their approach received a big endorsement when the military adopted it for its Minuteman missiles. “The Minuteman had a reputation for reliability, and we had no proof of [these circuits’] reliability,” he said in a pre-talk interview. “People assumed if the Minuteman could use them, they were reliable.”

Now, 40 years later, much more sophisticated integrated circuit microchips are found in items ranging from musical neckties to personal computers, not to mention those ubiquitous cell phones.

Given the advances made possible by the integrated circuit, perhaps it was only natural that an audience member asked Kilby, “Have you been properly paid for what you’ve done?” His answer: “I think I’ve been treated fairly and paid well for my work. I just wish our federal government didn’t want so much of it.”

The Pender Award is given annually by the School of Engineering and Applied Science to a member of the engineering profession who has made significant contributions to society.


Originally published on April 5, 2001