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

ownCloud Desktop Client 2.2.4 Released with Updated Dolphin Plugin, Bug Fixes

ownCloud is still alive and kicking, and they've recently released a new maintenance update of the ownCloud Desktop Client, version 2.2.4, bringing some much-needed improvements and patching various annoying issues. Read more

Early Benchmarks Of The Linux 4.9 DRM-Next Radeon/AMDGPU Drivers

While Linux 4.9 will not officially open for development until next week, the DRM-Next code is ready to roll with all major feature work having been committed by the different open-source Direct Rendering Manager drivers. In this article is some preliminary testing of this DRM-Next code as of 29 September when testing various AMD GPUs with the Radeon and AMDGPU DRM drivers. Linux 4.9 does bring compile-time-offered experimental support for the AMD Southern Islands GCN 1.0 hardware on AMDGPU, but that isn't the focus of this article. A follow-up comparison is being done with GCN 1.0/1.1 experimental support enabled to see the Radeon vs. AMDGPU performance difference on that hardware. For today's testing was a Radeon R7 370 to look at the Radeon DRM performance and for AMDGPU testing was the Radeon R9 285, R9 Fury, and RX 480. Benchmarks were done from the Linux 4.8 Git and Linux DRM-Next kernels as of 29 September. Read more

How to Effectively and Efficiently Edit Configuration Files in Linux

Every Linux administrator has to eventually (and manually) edit a configuration file. Whether you are setting up a web server, configuring a service to connect to a database, tweaking a bash script, or troubleshooting a network connection, you cannot avoid a dive deep into the heart of one or more configuration files. To some, the prospect of manually editing configuration files is akin to a nightmare. Wading through what seems like countless lines of options and comments can put you on the fast track for hair and sanity loss. Which, of course, isn’t true. In fact, most Linux administrators enjoy a good debugging or configuration challenge. Sifting through the minutiae of how a server or software functions is a great way to pass time. But this process doesn’t have to be an exercise in ineffective inefficiency. In fact, tools are available to you that go a very long way to make the editing of config files much, much easier. I’m going to introduce you to a few such tools, to ease some of the burden of your Linux admin duties. I’ll first discuss the command-line tools that are invaluable to the task of making configuration more efficient. Read more

Why Good Linux Sysadmins Use Markdown

The Markdown markup language is perfect for writing system administrator documentation: it is lightweight, versatile, and easy to learn, so you spend your time writing instead of fighting with formatting. The life of a Linux system administrator is complex and varied, and you know that documenting your work is a big time-saver. A documentation web server shared by you and your colleagues is a wonderful productivity tool. Most of us know simple HTML, and can whack up a web page as easily as writing plain text. But using Markdown is better. Read more