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50 Years Of The Integrated Circuit

It?s hard to imagine a world without the integrated circuit, just as it is hard to imagine a manufactured product without one! But the IC has only been with us for half a century, being first demonstrated on September 12, 1958.

By Ross Tester

It was midsummer, 1958. Jack St Clair Kilby, a recently-employed 35-year-old engineer didn’t have enough leave accrued to take the summer break off like most of his colleagues, so was working virtually alone in the laboratory at Texas Instruments.

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Inventor (or co-inventor) of the integrated circuit, Jack St Clair Kilby, in the Texas Instruments laboratory in 2000, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Below is Jack Kilby in 1958, the year of his invention.(Pictures courtesy Texas Instruments)

The most junior engineer at TI, Kilby’s background was in ceramic-based circuit boards and transistorised hearing aids. He joined TI because it was the only company that agreed to let him work on electronic component miniaturization more or less full time – and it turned out to be a great fit.

He was working on a problem known in circuit design as "the tyranny of numbers" – the more components a circuit has, the more difficult it is to connect them together using traditional wiring methods.

Kilby had come up with an ingenious solution: manufacturing all of the circuit components in a single piece semiconductor substrate.

Using a piece of germanium (the then-common semiconductor material) Kilby cobbled together a crude device in the TI laboratory and on September 12, 1958,

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he presented his findings to Texas Instrument management.

His germanium circuit was attached to an oscilloscope, which displayed a continuous sinewave, proving that the concept worked. Thus the integrated circuit was born, ushering in an era that even Jack Kilby couldn’t possibly envisage.

"What we didn’t realise then was that the integrated circuit would reduce the cost of electronic functions by a factor of a million to one, nothing had ever done that for anything before," said Jack Kilby

A patent application for "A solid circuit made of germanium" was filed on February 6, 1959.

Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 for "his part in the invention of the integrated circuit". He had always scoffed at the idea of such an honour, despite many people over the decades suggesting he deserved it – and despite him being awarded just about every other prize and honour available to a humble engineer; one who happened to change the course of history.

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