The technology behind almost every electronics device in the world, the integrated circuit or IC, is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Friday. Its enduring success is thanks in part to two “nice guys” who developed it, and their early efforts to convince an industry that at first reviled their idea.
The two men, Jack Kilby from Texas Instruments (TI) and Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel but head of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor when the IC was invented, long lived with the title of “co-inventor” of the integrated circuit.
The IC industry, or chip industry, is now globally closing in on US$300 billion a year in revenue, and the information technology industry behind it just wouldn’t be what it is without it.
Chips are the brains and nervous system of every electronics device around, from computers to iPhones and are finding their way into more devices all the time, including cars and refrigerators, to make them more energy efficient.
In 1960, computers not even as powerful as a US$1,000 PC today still required the space of an entire room and cost US$10 million. That all changed due to ICs.
In the 1950s, the electronics industry had just started using transistors, diodes, resistors and other electronic components instead of vacuum tubes, but the new circuitry was still bulky and expensive.
Kilby came up with the idea to combine this circuitry on one chip.
“In 1958, my goals were simple,” said Kilby in a lecture given after accepting the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000, “to lower the cost, simplify the assembly and make things smaller and more reliable.”
Noyce integrated transistors and other components onto a single piece of silicon to form a chip. Prior to his idea, Fairchild made transistors on silicon, but then cut them out and sold them separately.
The world’s first chips were born.
By most accounts, Kilby showed the first working integrated circuit to TI executives on Sept. 12, 1958, the reason today is viewed as the 50th anniversary.
But Noyce and other researchers at Fairchild Semiconductor, including Intel’s other co-founder, Gordon Moore, had been working on their own concepts and showed off their integrated circuit shortly thereafter.
Moore has argued that Noyce’s IC was more practical and easier to manufacture than Kilby’s original.
In any case, their invention could easily have been destroyed by patent battles and fighting over who would get credit for the IC and potentially lucrative royalties.
At first, it looked as though that might happen.
Kilby filed for his patent first but Noyce’s application went through faster, so he won the first patent for the IC. Soon after, a review board awarded the patent to Kilby on the basis of dates and notes in his research notebook. But after a decade-long court battle, Fairchild’s lawyers won the patent back for Noyce.
But the court room drama was in the background of a wider debate about the best way to produce and manufacture electronics circuitry. The idea for the IC was attacked by other researchers at the time, according to Kilby.
Some researchers believed the IC would be difficult to produce. Others criticized the technology for not using the best materials available for electronics circuitry. Finally, some feared the IC would put circuit designers around the world out of a job.
Kilby, Noyce, Moore and other proponents of the IC became swept up in defending the new technology and spreading the gospel about its potential uses and efficiencies.
Their companies, TI and Fairchild, settled their differences quickly with cross-licenses and started using ICs in products such as the handheld TI calculators that came out in 1964.
That kind of cooperation doesn’t happen often where credit for an invention and royalties are concerned.
Many accounts of Kilby and Noyce describe them as genuinely nice guys, sometimes to the chagrin of their colleagues.
In his Nobel lecture in 2000, Kilby noted Noyce’s work in the invention of the semiconductor as well as that of “several” unnamed researchers at Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
Noyce might have been a part of the prize had he not died 10 years earlier. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.
Kilby also credits the U.S. military and space program with the final say in the future of the IC because its use in major government projects proved its effectiveness.
The U.S. military used ICs in the Minuteman Missiles built to answer a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, while NASA used ICs in the Apollo moon mission.
There are many other people vital to the creation of the modern chip, including transistor inventors William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain from Bell Laboratories, who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics, as well as Leo Esaki, a semiconductor researcher at the company that later became known as Sony, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973 for work on the tunneling properties of electrons. Esaki also worked at IBM.
Today, the IC is responsible for innovations in technology that have continued to make gadgets smaller, more powerful and less expensive so that device makers can keep up with people’s appetite for gadgets such as mobile phones with touch screens that can also compute, play music and take pictures, all for less than $200.
Looking back over how the IC and the electronics industry have developed since 1958, Kilby quoted a fellow Nobel Prize winner in his lecture, saying: “It’s like the beaver told the rabbit as they stared at Hoover Dam. ‘No, I didn’t build it myself. But it’s based on an idea of mine.'”