On November 8, 1923, a baby boy was born into an ordinary family in Jefferson City, Missouri, USA. The baby boy’s father, Hubert Kilby, was an electrical engineer who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The baby boy’s mother, Vina Kilby, also graduated from the same university.
Perhaps the young couple did not realize that the little life they welcomed would become a great engineer, inventor, and even a Nobel Prize winner. His inventions would contribute to creating a vast industry and changing the entire world.
This baby boy was Jack St. Clair Kilby, one of the main inventors of the integrated circuit, and known as the “father of the microchip.”
✅ The Growth Path of an Engineer
In 1927, when Kilby was four years old, his family moved to Salina, Kansas.
Kilby’s father, Hubert Kilby, was a manager at the Kansas Power Company. Kilby often accompanied his father to power plants to observe the generation and transmission equipment. Over time, he developed a strong interest in these electrical devices and aspired to become an electrical engineer himself.
In 1937, Kilby’s family moved again to Great Bend, which was more than 100 kilometers away from Salina. It was in Great Bend where Kilby spent his high school years.
Upon graduating from high school, Kilby took the entrance exam for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in pursuit of his dream to become an engineer. Unfortunately, he missed the cut by just three points (the passing score was 500 and he scored 497).
With no other choice, Kilby enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (It is worth noting that the University of Illinois is not a second-rate institution, but one of the top public universities in the United States.)
Shortly after enrolling, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, and the United States officially entered World War II. Kilby joined the U.S. Army and served as a radio communication equipment repairman in the Army Signal Corps. He worked at a military base in Northeast India, where he specialized in repairing wireless walkie-talkies. It is said that he also went to China and participated in several months of combat under the leadership of General Stilwell.
Participating in the war brought significant benefits to Kilby’s growth. He later recalled, “Things outside of school make you grow up fast. When problems arise, you have to face them, figure out a way to solve them, and then progress.”
After the end of World War II, Kilby returned to the University of Illinois to continue his studies (tuition was covered by the military).
In 1947, Kilby graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and joined Centralab, a research institution of the Globe Union located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
During his time at Centralab, Kilby obtained a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee through night school. Meanwhile, he married Barbara Annegers and had two daughters.
In 1947, William Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen of Bell Labs jointly invented the world’s first transistor, causing a sensation in the scientific community.
In 1952, under pressure from US antitrust laws, Bell Labs began licensing the production of transistors to 38 companies across the US at a low cost of $25,000. This included Globe Union, where Kilby worked.
After receiving the license, Kilby was sent to Bell Labs to participate in a two-week transistor technology workshop. During this time, Kilby learned a lot about transistors.
Upon returning to Globe Union, Kilby formed a three-person research and development team. They manufactured transistors and put them on the market, but did not make much profit.
Globe Union was a small company with a big name, and they were not willing to invest more in transistors due to low profits. Kilby began to consider leaving and finding a better platform for his development.
After some comparisons, he finally joined a company that had just entered the electronics industry. This company was the semiconductor giant, Texas Instruments (TI).
✅ From Oil to Electronics, the Rise of a Giant
Texas Instruments is a company with a long history. Its predecessor, the Geophysical Service, was founded in 1930 by J. Clarence Karcher and Eugene McDermott.
This company’s main business was geological exploration, essentially looking for oil (Texas has abundant oil resources). GSI struggled during the Great Depression when it was founded. However, during World War II, GSI began to shift towards producing defense electronics products for the US Army and Navy. Their submarine detection equipment was highly regarded by the US Navy and brought in significant orders.
In 1951, GSI’s laboratory and manufacturing departments focusing on electronic products outperformed the geographic department, and the company effectively transitioned into an electronics industry company. As a result, the company was renamed “General Instrument.” Later that year, it was renamed “Texas Instruments” and has since been known by that name.
In 1952, Texas Instruments also obtained a patent license from Bell Labs.
In the same year, Gordon K. Teal, who had been working at Bell Labs, joined Texas Instruments as research director. Two years later, under his leadership, Texas Instruments successfully developed the first commercial silicon transistor, as well as the first transistor radio, which established the company’s position in the industry.
✅ The Birth of Integrated Circuits
As previously mentioned, Kilby joined Texas Instruments in 1958.
At the time, Texas Instruments was collaborating with the United States Communication Corps on a project called the “Micro-Module Program”. The research goal of the project was to standardize the size and shape of electronic components such as transistors, resistors, and capacitors, in order to achieve a standardized interconnection process, reduce circuit space, and lower the difficulty and error rate of soldering.
Kilby believed that the approach of the Micro-Module Program was not reasonable, so he began to research better solutions. Initially, Kilby designed an alternative product. However, after a cost analysis, it was found that the cost was too high and it couldn’t be produced in large quantities. Consequently, he became stuck in a research impasse.
In August 1958, a turning point occurred. Dallas, where Texas Instruments was located, became very hot in the summer. Therefore, the company would give employees two weeks off to go on vacation and avoid the heat.
Kirby is a new employee and does not qualify for vacation benefits. As a result, he had to stay in the company and work on his project. Perhaps because he was not disturbed by anyone, Kirby soon made a breakthrough.
Inspired by the idea presented by the famous scientist Geoffrey Dummer from the Royal Radar Research Institute in the United Kingdom at a conference in 1952, where he pointed out that with the advent of transistors and comprehensive research on semiconductors, it now seemed conceivable that electronic devices in the future would be solid components without connecting wires.
Guided by this idea, Kirby discovered that tiny microcircuits consisting of many devices could be made on a single chip. That is to say, different electronic devices (such as resistors, capacitors, diodes, and transistors) could be made on a silicon wafer and then connected by fine wires.
This astonishing idea excited Kirby himself. That day, he detailed his thoughts in his notebook and even conceived a complete process for the circuit, which he wrote down on five full pages.
After the end of his vacation, Kirby immediately reported his idea to his immediate supervisor Willis Adcock, who was the head of development at Texas Instruments at the time. Kirby proposed that he could create a trigger circuit to verify his idea.
Initially, Adcock was skeptical of the idea and thought it might be too complicated and unreliable. However, after careful consideration, he reluctantly agreed to Kirby’s suggestion.
Kirby began implementing his plan and initially planned to use “silicon” as the substrate for the circuit. However, Texas Instruments did not have suitable silicon wafers at the time, so Kirby chose to use “germanium” instead.
Soon after, on August 28, 1958, Kirby successfully created his trigger circuit, which performed very well.
On September 12, 1958, the Texas Instruments executives gathered in the laboratory. At this time, Kirby confidently demonstrated the circuit integrated on a germanium wafer measuring 7/16 inch long and 1/16 inch wide.
The circuit was a single-transistor oscillator with RC feedback, glued onto a glass slide and connected by haphazard wires. It looked extremely crude. In front of a group of witnesses, Kilby nervously connected a 10-volt power supply to the input and an oscilloscope to the output. As he switched it on, the oscilloscope displayed a 1.2 megahertz sine wave with an amplitude of 0.2 volts. After a moment of silence, there was applause and cheering. Kilby had succeeded in creating the world’s first integrated circuit using a single material. This marked the beginning of a new era in the development of the electronic industry for mankind.
On February 6, 1959, Texas Instruments and Kilby filed a patent application with the US Patent Office. In the application, Kilby described his new device as “a semiconductor material … in which all of the components of the electronic circuit are completely integrated”.
On March 6, 1959, the Institute of Radio Engineers (later the IEEE) held its annual meeting in New York City. Texas Instruments held a high-profile press conference at the famous Waldorf Astoria hotel, officially showcasing Kilby’s invention to the public.
Mark Shepherd, then head of Texas Instruments semiconductor department and later its president, declared at the press conference, “This is the most significant invention Texas Instruments has announced since it entered the transistor market”.
✅ Kilby vs. Noyce, who was the Father of the Integrated Circuit?
At the same time as Kilby’s invention of the integrated circuit, another person also made a breakthrough in this field. This person was Robert Norton Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor.
As I mentioned earlier in the article on Fairchild Semiconductor (link), Robert Noyce was a pioneer in the field of integrated circuits, alongside Kilby. Noyce was one of the “traitorous eight” who founded Fairchild and later co-founded Intel.
Fairchild was a powerhouse in semiconductor technology, with one of the “eight traitors,” Jean Hoerni, inventing the important planar process. This process involved adding a layer of oxide to a silicon wafer as an insulating layer, then using aluminum to connect the devices that had been created using silicon diffusion technology.
The planar process enabled Fairchild to create high-performance silicon transistors of incredibly small sizes, making it possible to connect devices within an integrated circuit.
On January 23, 1959, Noyce wrote in his notebook: “If various elements can be fabricated on a single silicon crystal and if connections can be made across the boundaries of the elements, new opportunities for circuit configurations will be possible. The resulting circuits will be much more compact, much more easily maintained, and much more economical.”
The news of Kilby’s invention announced by Texas Instruments brought a great shock to Noyce. He was deeply regretful that his actions were not fast enough. On the other hand, he also discovered a significant flaw in Kilby’s invention.
Kilby’s integrated circuit used wire bonding, which made it impossible for large-scale production and lacked practical value.
Noyce’s idea was to make a substrate for all electronic circuits and components, then etch them onto a silicon wafer. Once the wafer was etched, it would contain the entire circuit and could be used directly for product assembly. Additionally, using evaporation to deposit metal could replace wire bonding, eliminating wire bonds entirely.
On July 30, 1959, Noyce filed a patent application for “Semiconductor Device-and-Lead Structure,” based on his own idea. Strictly speaking, Noyce’s invention was closer to the modern definition of an integrated circuit. Noyce’s design was based on the silicon substrate planar process, while Kilby’s design was based on the germanium substrate diffusion process. Noyce relied on Fairchild Semiconductor’s silicon process advantage to create circuits that were indeed more advanced than Kilby’s.
However, Kilby’s hybrid integrated circuit already had the characteristics of an integrated circuit and was patented earlier. As a result, Kilby’s employer, Texas Instruments, and Noyce’s employer, Fairchild Semiconductor, engaged in a fierce patent war.
Regarding this lawsuit, Kilby said, “No one would question that I was the first to make an integrated circuit. Dr. Noyce was the first to do what I had wanted to do — use evaporated metal as a conductor. His method was much further developed than mine, and he said he was sympathetic to my plight and co-invented with me. I don’t agree with that.”
In 1966, the court ultimately awarded the invention of the idea of integrated circuits (hybrid integrated circuits) to Kilby, and the invention of the truly integrated circuits (packaged onto a chip) and manufacturing process to Noyce.
Kilby was hailed as the “inventor of the first integrated circuit,” while Noyce was credited with “proposing integrated circuit theory suitable for industrial production.”
That year, Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor reached a cross-licensing agreement to share the patents for integrated circuits.
In 1969, the US federal court legally ruled that the two companies integrated circuit patents were independently developed in parallel.
✅ The Advent of the Chip Era
In March 1960, Texas Instruments officially launched the world’s first commercialized integrated circuit product, the 502 silicon double-stable multi-harmonic binary trigger, at a selling price of $450 based on Jack Kilby’s design.
After the birth of the integrated circuit, it was first applied in the military field (which was the most sensitive period of the Cold War at that time).
In 1961, the US Air Force introduced the first computer driven by integrated circuits. In 1962, Americans used integrated circuits in the guidance system of Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Later, the famous Apollo Moon Landing Project purchased millions of integrated circuits, making Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor earn a lot of money.
The success in the military market has driven the expansion of the civilian market. In 1964, Zenith used integrated circuits in hearing aids, which was the first landing of integrated circuits in the civilian field. Since then, the cost of integrated circuits has gradually declined, and the process has been continuously improved, gradually being accepted by the industry.
In 1961, Texas Instruments Chairman Patrick E. Haggerty arranged for Kilby to design a new handheld calculator to promote the popularization of integrated circuits.
In 1967, Kilby’s team successfully completed the development of this product, which is the world’s first electronic handheld calculator – the Pocketronic.
The greater significance of integrated circuits lies in paving the way for the advent of microprocessors.
In 1970, Intel launched the world’s first DRAM (dynamic random access memory) integrated circuit 1103. The following year, they also introduced the world’s first programmable arithmetic and logic chip that included a processor and controller – the Intel 4004.
The Intel 4004, with 2,300 transistors, was the world’s first microprocessor. Its birth marked the beginning of the era of personal computers.
✅ The belated Nobel Prize
In 1971, Jack Kilby left Texas Instruments to pursue consulting work and continued his inventing. He also served as a professor at Texas A&M University. During this time, Kilby received funding from the US Department of Energy to work on the development and utilization of clean energy sources, specifically solar power. He established several large systems, but the solar power project was not given much attention due to the decline in oil prices, and therefore, the results were not commercialized.
In 1999, the Los Angeles Times named Kilby one of the “50 Most Influential Business People of the 20th Century,” sharing first place with William Shockley and Robert Noyce.
On October 10, 2000, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Jack Kilby, along with Russian scientist Zhores Alferov and American scientist Herbert Kroemer, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their “basic work in information technology.”
For his contributions to the invention of the integrated circuit, Kilby received half of the prize money (9 million Swedish kronor, about 1 million dollars).
By the time Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize, 42 years had passed since his invention of the integrated circuit.
Nonetheless, better late than never. Sadly, Robert Noyce missed out on the recognition, as he died suddenly of a heart attack on June 3, 1990, at the age of 62.
On June 20, 2005, Jack Kilby passed away at his home in Dallas due to cancer at the age of 81.
✅ Words in the End
During his lifetime, Kilby had over 60 inventions and patents to his name, including the integrated circuit, the microcalculator, solar energy systems, and the thermal printer.
There is no doubt that he was a great inventor whose contributions have driven social progress and are worthy of our everlasting remembrance.
In closing, let us use the words of Tom Engibous, former Chairman of the Texas Instruments Board of Directors, to end this article:
“I think there are a few people whose work has changed the entire world and the way we live – Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Jack Kilby. And if there’s one invention that not only revolutionized our industry but changed the world we live in, it’s the integrated circuit that Jack Kilby invented.”
- “The Chip War,” Science and Industry Research;
- “60 years ago, the world’s first integrated circuit was born”;
- “The Invention Stories of Nobel Prize Winners,” Shanghai Jiao Tong University Library;
- “Silicon Valley History,” Qian Gang, Mechanical Industry Press;