Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jack Kilby, the Inventor of the Integrated Circuit (IC)

Jack Kilby took over 50 patents, he got National Medal of Science and was in National Inventors Hall of Fame, but all of these was based on a single event: the invention of the integrated circuit (IC).

The beginning of Jack’s interest in electronics was when his father, running a power company, faced a big ice storm that took down telephone and power lines and could not communicate, so he began to work with amateur radio operators to be able to communicate. He observed that electronics is fascinating.

At the time when he was interviewed, Jack has been occupied with consulting, somewhat retired and with being director of a company or two. Most of the companies who received his consultation, was dealing with semiconductors in one way or another.

Even if Jack Kilby realized that the invention of IC will have a significance in electronics, he did not realize that electronic components will be so cheap, guiding a trend to be used in so different applications like personal computers in about every home, electronic watches, calculators and so on. If a single silicon transistor was not very good sold for $10, in modern times with $10 you could buy 20 million transistors, an equal number of passive components and all circuit interconnections that make a useful memory chip. Jack Kilby is sure that no one anticipated that.

The idea of IC belong to him, but what we see today include the work of many engineers, concentrating on improving products, reducing costs and so on. What Jack did with the invention of IC, was a new approach of electronic circuits, but a lot progress was made possible by others.

How did this idea come to his mind? He was working in a company that made packed circuits. When he moved on Texas Instruments, seeing the company’s capabilities, he observed that circuits could somehow be packed in a single semiconductor wafer.

One of the inventions he took part in was hand-held calculator. Its cost was $400 or $500 but in modern days its cost dropped to $4 or $5.

What means the tyranny of numbers? It means that if you want to produce what exists today with the 50s technology, it would take too much money and power and would be too big and heavy. The number of parts would be prohibitive.

When Jack Kilby arrived at Texas Instruments, this was a small company. It changed rapidly when he was there in the first period, growing up. This company has been changing over time. Now its changes are maybe even greater but maybe of the same kind. Texas Instruments began to work in digital signal processing and Jack Kilby thinks that it would have a bright future. Digital signal processing is something basic and powerful. His point of view is that even if most of input and many of output signals in electronic devices are analog, these signals will have to be converted in digital form and to be processed. Cell phones are very dependent by digital signal processing and they changed the way we communicate.

In 50s, engineers were not trained as semiconductor engineers. They had different backgrounds. Now, they are specialized in a given area. Perhaps, that concentration on a particular area is necessary, but perhaps it prohibits innovation.

It is dangerous to make predictions about where the IC will go. Its history is longer then vacuum tube’s history, and that surprises Jack Kilby.

This was a description of the original article.

A video clip with the recreation of Jack Kilby’s lab:

Narration: Jack Kilby's Lab for Texas Instruments from Don Smith on Vimeo.

A page from BBC about Jack Kilby:

A video clip about how do they do semiconductor chips at Texas Instruments:

(Note: If you do could not watch the clip below, click on this link:


  1. I liked the phrase tyranny of numbers, I've never heard that before but it is very eloquent.

    Also, a bit of user acceptance testing for you: the Vimeo video was embedded perfectly, however, I was unable to view anything after the final sentence:
    A video clip about how do they do semiconductor chips at Texas Instruments

    I tried with Chrome browser and then with IE 8, running Win7 64-bit, but just see a big white space.

    Otherwise, a nice article!

  2. Thanks for your comment. Tyranny of numbers was a problem in the past because you had to have a lot of circuits to realize what integrated circuits do with so little effort from you. Without integrated circuits you had to deal with a big and heavy system and over that it was hard to maintain.

    Thanks for your observation about the problem with the videoclip. I can view it from my computer with all these three browsers: mozilla firefox, internet explorer and google chrome. I did not observe any problem, but I added a link in the post above for other users in your situation.