Kilby, Jack S.

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Jack S. Kilby

American engineer Jack S. Kilby (born 1923) invented the integrated circuit, also known as the microchip, in 1958. His invention is the basis for a wide spectrum of personal electronic devices, including personal computers, calculators, cell phones, digital watches, video games, and DVDs. The microchip is also used in large-scale, high-tech designs, from medical diagnostic equipment to space exploration systems. Kilby's invention changed the face of modern electronics and his efforts have been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Kilby was born on November 8, 1923, in Jefferson City, Missouri, and he grew up in the small Kansas town of Grand Bend. Kilby's father ran a local power company there that served rural customers throughout western Kansas. When Kilby was in high school, an ice storm knocked down power lines in much of the area, and several amateur radio operators helped Kilby's father communicate with customers who lost their telephone service. This episode triggered Kilby's interest in electronics, and in 1941, after graduating from high school, he traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to take the entrance exam at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kilby scored three points shy of the passing grade of 500, and enrolled instead in the University of Illinois. "They were interested in how well students were prepared for their very strenuous course. It was pretty clear I was not," Kilby recalled in 2001, in an interview with the Washington Times. "I don't know that it's any reflection on MIT or on me. It just reflected the state of affairs in 1941 with me."

Kilby had been at the University of Illinois only four months when the United States entered World War II. He enlisted in the Army, where he served in the Signal Corps and the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, in India, Burma, and China. Kilby returned to the University of Illinois at the end of the war and completed his studies in electrical engineering in 1947. Interestingly, his course work did not include the study of solid-state electronics, the field in which he would make his name, although he did study vacuum tube technology, which was soon to become obsolete, largely due to Kilby's pending invention. He studied engineering physics as well.

Explored New Technology

Upon graduation, Kilby took a job with Centralab, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based division of the Globe-Union Corporation. The company manufactured parts for hearing-aid, radio, and television circuits, and Kilby worked on technologically advancing these components. While working at Centralab he attended evening courses at the University of Wisconsin, earning his master's degree in electrical engineering in 1950. As Kilby's career began, the field of electronics was rapidly changing. Many electronic devices at the time, including televisions, radios, telephones, and computers, relied on vacuum-tube technology. The tubes, which resembled large light bulbs and operated in the same manner, with current passing through a filament, were expensive, bulky, and broke easily. "By the end of World War II, it was obvious that the cost, bulk and reliability of vacuum tubes would limit commercial and military electronic systems," Kilby observed in his Nobel lecture published in Nobel Lectures: Physics, 1996-2000. In 1948, scientists at Bell Laboratories invented a transistor made out of semiconductor material-elements such as silicon or germanium that conduct electricity at a rate midway between faster elements like silver or copper and insulators, which do not conduct electricity at all. The transistor was significantly smaller than the vacuum tube, as well as faster, more reliable, and more energy efficient.

Kilby had a chance to experiment with this and other developing technologies at Centralab, obtaining approximately one dozen patents during his tenure there. "Centralab was a fortunate choice for me, because they worked with hybrid circuits, an early form of miniaturization," Kilby recalled in his Nobel lecture. He began studying transistor technology at home and in 1951, Centralab sent him to a transistor symposium held by Bell Labs, which had begun licensing its technology. Kilby became the leader of a three-person team charged with incorporating transistors into Centralab products. While Centralab focused on the transistor's application to small devices, Kilby remained aware of the technology's broader possibilities. "It was clear . . . that major expenditures would soon be required, especially for the military market that was becoming a major opportunity," Kilby recalled in his Nobel lecture.

Invented Microchip

Kilby began looking for a new position where he could explore the developing technology more fully. In 1958, after turning down offers from IBM and Motorola, he accepted a position with Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas, where he would be permitted to work on miniaturization full-time. He arrived at Texas Instruments just before a company-mandated two-week vacation for which he was not eligible. "When I started at TI in May of 1958, I had no vacation coming that year. So I worked through the period when about 90 percent of the workforce took what we called 'mass vacation,"' he recalled. "I was left with my thoughts and imagination." On July 24, 1958, Kilby described in his lab notebook what came to be known as the "Monolithic Idea." "It stated that circuit elements such as resistors, capacitors, distributed capacitors and transistors—if all made of the same material—could be included in a single chip," he explained in his lecture. Kilby's supervisor asked him to devise a prototype illustrating his idea and on September 12, 1958, Kilby successfully demonstrated his 7/16-inch by 1/16-inch silicon microchip, also known as an integrated circuit, to a group of company officials. Kilby later observed that being at an early stage in his career may have spurred his forward-thinking approach. "I was the ignorant freshman in the field," he told a contributor to the Washington Post. "I didn't know what everybody else considered impossible, so I didn't rule anything out."

Texas Instruments' application for a patent on Kilby's technology hit a snag when the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation filed a patent application for a similar device, developed by Robert Noyce, during the same time frame. The U.S. Court of Customs and Patent appeals settled the dispute in 1969, declaring that Texas Instruments would be paid for the design of the integrated circuit and Fairchild would be paid for the manufacturing process and interconnection techniques. Noyce went on to found the Intel Corporation and he and Kilby are largely regarded as coinventors of the microchip. Kilby has always remained congenial toward his colleague, who died in 1990. "While Robert and I followed our own paths, we worked hard together to achieve commercial acceptance for integrated circuits," he wrote in an autobiography posted on the Nobel Prize Web site. "If he were still living, I have no doubt we would have shared this prize."

Kilby has routinely downplayed his personal significance with regard to his invention, arguing that technology was already headed in the direction he followed. "There were various efforts to solve the electronic miniaturization problem at the time I invented the integrated circuit. Humankind eventually would have solved the matter, but I had the fortunate experience of being the first person with the right idea and the right resources available at the right time in history," he wrote in his autobiography.

The integrated circuit had immediate applications for the U.S. military, which had long sought miniaturized technology for its projects. Both the Apollo lunar mission and the Minuteman missile utilized Kirby's invention, although he has expressed some ambivalence over the use of his invention to build weapons. "Military applications played a major role in the development of electronics," Kirby observed in his Nobel lecture. "I think the Nobel Peace Prize is important, because it honors people who work to bring peace. And peace means we can use electronics to benefit mankind rather than wage war." Kilby and his supervisors set out to demonstrate the usefulness of the microchip in the commercial realm, and in 1965 Texas Instruments debuted the first pocket calculator. "We began to work on that to expand the market for integrated circuits and it was very successful," Kilby recalled in an interview posted on the Texas Instruments Website. The first calculators sold for $400 or $500. Today, the microchip is used in a wide array of both personal and large-scale electronics and has enabled the ever-expanding field of wireless communications by supporting laptop computers, cellular phones, personal digital assistants, and other portable communications devices.

Awarded Nobel Prize

Kilby continued to pursue new projects both independently and at Texas Instruments, including an electronic check writer, a paging system, and a solar energy system on which he worked for about seven years until the project was abandoned, and by 2000 held more than 50 patents. In 1978, he was appointed professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University, where he remained until 1984. Kilby retired from Texas Instruments in the 1980s but remained affiliated with the company as a research consultant. He was inducted into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame in 1988. "Seeing your name alongside the likes of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers is a very humbling experience, and I appreciate these and the other honors very much," he remarked in his Nobel autobiography.

Although he has always worked as an engineer and not a physicist, in 2000 Kilby shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Russian physicist Zhores I. Alferov and American physicist Herbert Kroemer, who refined semiconductor technology. "The Nobel Prize is further recognition that Jack Kilby invented the future when he invented the integrated circuit," Texas Instruments C.E.O. Tom Engibous remarked in a statement published on the company's Website. "He exemplifies the spirit of innovation and sharing that has driven Texas Instruments since the company's founding."

In his Nobel lecture, Kilby stated that he had not set out to revolutionize his field. "In 1958, my goals were simple: to lower the cost, simplify the assembly, and make things smaller and more reliable. Although I do not consider myself responsible for all of the activity that has followed it has been very satisfying to witness the integrated circuit's evolution," he remarked. "I am pleased to have had even a small part in helping turn the potential of human creativity into practical reality."


Nobel Lectures: Physics, 1996-2000, World Scientific Publishing, 2002.


Interactive Week, April 2, 2001.

Washington Post, December 10, 2000.

Washington Times, November 8, 2001.


"Jack S. Kilby—Autobiography," Nobel Prize Website, (December 7, 2004).

Texas Instruments Web site, (December 7, 2004).

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Kilby, Jack S.

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