Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Microchip Pioneer Kilby Dies

Filed under
Obits

Four decades after inventing the integrated circuit — the basis of every electronic device today — Jack Kilby believed that the invention found him as much as the other way around.

Nobel Prize winner Jack Kilby was a leader in technology, paving the way for the digital age of personal computing.

"Humankind eventually would have solved the matter," he wrote upon accepting the Nobel Prize in 2000. "But I had the fortunate experience of being the first person with the right idea and the right resources at the right time in history."

Kilby, who died Monday at 81 after a brief battle with cancer, gave birth to one of the most dynamic industries in history. His integrated circuit, first demonstrated on Sept. 12, 1958, made possible computers, the space program, the Internet and such everyday items as digital watches and Furbys.

"Few people can say they really changed the world. Kilby would be one of them," says Gordon Eubanks, CEO of tech company Oblix.

Kilby began his career with a small electronics maker in Milwaukee in 1947, the same year the transistor was invented at Bell Laboratories. In 1958, he took a job with Texas Instruments in Dallas.

The company had been working on a problem: As engineers tried to make more complex devices, they kept adding individual transistors, capacitors and other components to circuit boards, soldering each of the tiny wires together. As the boards got more intricate, they were hard to make and unreliable.

That summer, new employee Kilby famously had no vacation time and had to work during TI's annual two-week summer shutdown. He used the time to work on his radical idea of building all the components into a single part.

"I was sitting at a desk, probably stayed there a little longer than usual," he said in an interview posted on TI's Web site. "Most of it formed pretty clearly during the course of that day. There was some slight skepticism (from his supervisors), but basically they realized its importance." Kilby put together a prototype — one transistor and other components on a slice of germanium about half the size of a paperclip. On Sept. 12, he demonstrated his integrated circuit for TI management. It was publicly unveiled on March 6, 1959.

It must have been the right moment for the invention, because someone else had been working on it, too — Robert Noyce, then of Fairchild Semiconductor. Noyce put his on silicon, solving some of the potential manufacturing problems of Kilby's design, and filed for a patent about six months after Kilby. Both patents, slightly different, were granted, which set off legal battles until the two agreed to cross-license to each other.

"As notable nowadays is the gentlemanly way Kilby and Noyce and their companies finally agreed to share the title of co-inventor and the royalties," says Harold Evans, author of They Made America: Two Centuries of Innovators from the Steam Engine to the Search Engine.

Noyce went on to co-found Intel. Atypical in tech history, Intel and TI both remain leaders in making the inventions they engendered.

In the early 1960s, TI challenged Kilby to create a product that would demonstrate to consumers the value of integrated circuits. So Kilby came up with the electronic calculator. It cost nearly $500 when introduced. In his later years, Kilby would say he was amazed such calculators now cost around $4.

"The cost decrease (of computer chips) has been a factor of millions to one," Kilby said in the interview.

Kilby won dozens of awards, including the Nobel Prize in 2000 and the National Medal of Technology in 1990. He also continued to inspire major players in technology.

"I only met him once or twice, but meeting him the first time left an impression," Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. "It was at an electrical engineering meeting. He was sitting at a table, having drinks, and I was invited to join by someone. I was maybe a year out of school (very junior) and Kilby was a towering figure, both metaphorically and physically. He reached out to me, was very friendly, down-to-earth, and best of all, he wore a pair of hearing aids, just like I did in those days. The combination worked to break the ice, and we had a good technical conversation."

"His death is a great loss to the engineering and scientific communities," says Gordon Bell, who helped invent the minicomputer while at Digital Equipment in the 1960s and now works at Microsoft Research. "As an engineer, the inspiration and my admiration comes from (Kilby) being the co-inventor of one of the greatest inventions of all time."

By Kevin Maney
USA TODAY

More in Tux Machines

Q4OS 1.4.7, Orion

Another update of Q4OS 'Orion' desktop is available, version 1.4.7. A complete Trinity repository has been added to the system as the main new feature. Access to all the Trinity software were given to users by default, there is no need to add external Trinity repositories anymore. Bunch of important packages updates and security patches has been delivered as usual. Read more

Slackware Live Edition – on its way to 1.0?

Last week the second Beta of the upcoming Slackware 14.2 was released. My goal was to have a new Beta of my liveslak ready by that time, so that I could provide new ISO images to test the Slackware Beta2 on a live medium. Unfortunately, there was an attack of the flu in my team at work and things got a bit busier than usual. There was a plus side to this: some last moment bug fixes which could be applied to my scripts – the result of having more evenings available to test. Therefore the new release is not labeled “0.5.0” but “0.5.1” Read more

Leftovers: KDE

  • Cantor migrating to Phabricator: which tools our contributors must to use
    Projects and software developed by KDE community are going to migrate for a new tool to manage our code, commits, reviews, tasks, and more. This tool is Phabricator and you can visit the instance for KDE projects in this address. Since November 2015 we are migrating Cantor to Phabricator. After our first successful review code some days ago, I decided to write a post about which tools our contributors must to use while the migration process is not finished.
  • Kdenlive's sprint report
    Last week-end, Vincent and me met in Lausanne for a Kdenlive sprint. One of our goal was to merge Gurjot Singh Bhatti's GSoC work on curves for keyframes. This was more work than expected and we spent many hours trying fix the curves and make keyframes behave correctly. Not much time was left for sleep, but we still managed to get outside to make a group (!) picture in the woods above Lausanne.
  • Jekyll 3.x
    I’ve found three different types of transition issues (it is cool to look at these in a project I do not upgrade on a daily basis like Plasma and the rest of the KDE software).
  • kdev-python on Windows: try it!
    I spent the last two or three days playing around with KDE on Windows, with the aim of getting my Python language plugin for KDevelop to run there. In the end, it wasn’t that hard to get this to work — not as hard as I would have expected it to be, anyways.

Manjaro ARM launched

Hi community, wonderful news in regard of architecture expanding within Manjaro Linux. It all started with a simple post on our developers mailing list. Somebody wants to do Manjaro for ARM … Just after one month of development our first alpha release is now ready. So what is this all about? Manjaro Arm is a project aimed to bring you the simplicity and customability that is Manjaro to ARM devices. These devices are growing in numbers and can be used for any number of applications. Most famous is the Raspberry Pi series and BeagleBoard series. Read more