The integrated circuit fueled the rise of microelectronics in the latter half of the twentieth century and paved the wary for the Information Age. An American engineer, Jack Kilby, invented the integrated circuit in 1958, shortly after he began working at Texas Instruments. The magnitude of the invention’s importance is reflected in the fact that in 2000, Kilby shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Zhores Alferov and Herbert Kroemer.
Kilby was born on November 8, 1923, in Jefferson City, Missouri, and was raised in Great Bend, Kansas. The work of his father, who ran an electric company that serviced rural customers in western Kansas, greatly influenced the direction of his career. One winter when Kilby was a teenager, an ice storm left many Kansans without power or telephone service. Yet through the use of ham radio, Kilby’s father managed to communicate with his remote clientele. The incident sparked the interest of the younger Kilby, who, as he later explained, “... first saw how radio, and by extension electronics, could really impact people’s lives, keeping them informed and connected, giving them hope.”
Following his high school graduation, Kilby went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. But shortly after he began classes, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and Kilby joined the Army. Stationed in India, he specialized in radio repair. When he returned to the University of Illinois, his coursework included classes on vacuum tubes, a technology he would later help render obsolete.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1947, Kilby moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to accept a position at a division of the Globe-Union Corporation called Centralab. He worked on improving electronics components during the day, and in the evenings took graduate classes at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1950. The next year, Kilby attended a symposium on transistors held by Bell Laboratories. Researchers there had developed the transistor in the late 1940s, and the company soon after began licensing the technology to others. Thanks to this new knowledge, Kilby’s work at Centralab changed focus. He became the leader of a team looking for ways to make electronics smaller by using transistors.
Kilby’s interest in microminiaturization led him, in 1958, to Texas Instruments, where he was told he could pursue the topic full time. As chance would have it, when he arrived with his wife and daughters in Dallas, most of the staff was heading out on company-mandated vacation. Ineligible for the time off, Kilby found himself almost completely alone with his thoughts. It was in this environment that he first conceived of the integrated circuit, in which all the components are made from the same piece of material. Such a circuit, Kilby realized, would enable numerous circuit components to be featured on a very tiny chip, for there would be no need for wires or other external connectors. The chip he conceived would be made of silicon, the same material that Texas Instruments was already using to fashion transistors.
When the Texas Instruments employees returned, Kilby shared his idea with his boss. In late August of 1958, he demonstrated that a circuit with all silicon elements was possible, but the circuit was not yet integrated. Kilby presented the first integrated circuit, built from germanium instead of silicon and about the size of a postage stamp, on September 12 of that year. It was patented a few months later. Since then, it has become the basic building block of modern electronics. Now better known as microchips or simply “chips,” integrated circuits have allowed computers to become increasingly powerful and electronic devices to become increasingly small.
At about the same time Kilby developed the integrated circuit, the same advance was made by Robert Noyce. Working at Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce built a more complex integrated circuit from silicon. Noyce’s circuit was patented later than Kilby’s, but both men are usually recognized as co-inventors. Kilby himself encouraged this view, and when he received the Nobel Prize in 2000, he suggested that Noyce, who had passed away by that time, deserved to share the honor.
After the first integrated circuits were built, engineers sought ways to incorporate them into products. Kilby was very active in this regard throughout his career. Some of the earliest uses were in computer equipment for the Apollo space missions and the Minuteman missile. At Texas Instruments, Kilby played a critical role in bringing the integrated circuit to the common man. With his help, the handheld calculator debuted in 1965.
Kilby temporarily left Texas Instruments in 1970 to carry out work independently, although he did not officially retire until 1983. He was particularly interested in the application of silicon technology for solar power generation. From 1978 to 1984, Kilby served as an electrical engineering professor at Texas A&M University. In his later years, he was a research consultant for Texas Instruments.
Over the course of his career, Kilby accumulated dozens of patents and honors. He was made a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. From these groups he accepted the Cledo Brunetti Award, the David Sarnoff Award, the Medal of Honor and the Charles Stark Draper Prize. Kilby received the National Medal of Science in 1970 and became an inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1982. Other awards include the Stuart Ballantine Medal, the Holley Medal and the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology. Less than five years after Kilby received his highest honor, the Nobel Prize in Physics, he died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma at his home in Texas.