Kilby, Jack St. Clair

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Kilby, Jack St. Clair

(b. 8 November 1923 in Jefferson City, Missouri; d. 20 June 2005 in Dallas, Texas), electrical engineer, inventor, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the integrated circuit.

Kilby was one of many talented engineers of his generation to come from the rural western United States of the 1920s and 1930s. In common with other western children, Kilby grew up with machinery and electrical equipment and from this background gained an early appreciation of practical engineering. He was born in Missouri, one of the two children of Hubert S. and Vina (Freitag) Kilby, but spent most of his childhood in Great Bend, Kansas, where he graduated from Great Bend High School. Kilby’s father was an engineer who managed electrical utilities, including one that provided service to one third of the state. His mother was a homemaker. During his teenage years Kilby did some of the dirtier and less pleasant tasks of utility management, such as cleaning sludge from oil storage tanks.

Kilby hoped to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but failed the mathematics section of the entrance examination. Instead he enrolled in 1940 as an engineering student at his father’s alma mater, the University of Illinois. Kilby’s college education was interrupted by World War II. For three years Kilby served as a radio operator in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He was deployed in India and supported the intelligence work of the Office of Strategic Services. Returning to college in 1946, Kilby studied on the GI Bill and received his BEE in 1947.

After graduation Kilby took a job with Centralab in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He married Barbara Annegers on 27 June 1948, and the couple had two children. Centralab was a division of Globe Union, a company that manufactured electrical components such as automobile storage batteries. Most of these components were sold to companies such as Sears Roebuck, which marketed them under their own brand names. During World War II, Centralab was recruited to manufacture circuits for proximity fuses, or electronic devices that detonated an artillery shell or a bomb as it approached a target. This work gave the company expertise in mass production of rugged, compact circuits. In 1947, the year Kilby joined Centralab, the company was designing circuits on a ceramic slab. These circuits had three types of components: tubes, resistors, and capacitors. The tubes and larger capacitors were mounted on the ceramic slabs and connected not with wires but with lines of a special conducting ink printed by a silk-screen process. Resistors were made with carbon ink. Smaller capacitors were etched directly onto the slab.

While employed at Centralab, Kilby earned an MS in electrical engineering in 1950 through a distance education program of the University of Wisconsin. His most important lessons, however, came from a 1952 transistor seminar at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The laboratories, where the transistor had been invented in 1948, held the seminar as a way of transferring the technology to other firms. At the seminar Kilby learned how to manufacture transistors and use them in circuit designs. When he returned to Wisconsin, Kilby established a small production facility. He used the transistors in the amplifiers for a hearing aid, a product sold by Centralab.

By the late 1950s the field of electronics was being changed not only by transistors but also by the needs of computer manufacture. Computers needed multiple copies of a few basic circuit designs. A single computer might contain several hundred copies of a basic one-bit memory circuit called a flip-flop. In contrast, a television set of the age might be built with thirty unique circuits. The new computers encouraged engineers to consider ways of mass-producing entire circuits. The problems of mass production interested Kilby, but he had come to believe that placing individual components on a block of ceramic was not the best way to build multiple copies of a single design. He had become interested in using the basic material of transistors, called semiconductors, to build complex circuits, and he concluded “that Centralab was not a very good place to do that.”

In 1958 Kilby left Centralab and took a job with Texas Instruments in Dallas. In his job search, he had interviewed with Motorola and IBM but had concluded that Texas Instruments was a more innovative company. Kilby had met engineers from Texas Instruments at the 1952 Bell Laboratories transistor seminar and knew that the firm had found an inexpensive way of mass producing the devices. As a clever way of promoting its accomplishment, Texas Instruments had created a small, inexpensive transistor radio that had become a popular consumer product.

Kilby took a position in a division of Texas Instruments that supplied electronic devices to the U.S. military. At the time the division was exploring ways of building an integrated circuit, a term that then referred to any means of combining the three basic elements of a circuit into a compact form. One method, which was promoted by the U.S. Army, used components that were manufactured as small blocks of a common size and packed into blocks, a process known as the micromodule program. Kilby spent the summer of 1958 on the problem of circuit integration. He worked largely alone because he had not been with Texas Instruments long enough to qualify for the two-week mass vacation that was a tradition at the company. Recognizing that the basic material of transistors, semiconductors, could also be used to make resistors and capacitors, Kilby sketched the design for two circuits: a sine-wave generator and a flip-flop. Using materials from the Texas Instrument production line, a block of germanium with transistors already on it, Kilby made the sine-wave generator and demonstrated it on 12 September 1958. He demonstrated an integrated flip-flop circuit one week later. With its great potential for repeated use in computers, the flip-flop circuit became a demonstration product that was announced in March 1959.

Kilby’s work coincided with similar research by Robert Noyce (1927–1990) at Fairchild Camera and Instrument in California. Noyce also made complete circuits on a single block of semiconductor, although he used silicon rather than germanium. Many years of court cases were required to separate the patent claims of Kilby and Noyce, but ultimately both were credited for inventing the integrated circuit.

The ideas of both Kilby and Noyce faced opposition from electrical engineers, including pointed criticism from an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Some of the resistance was motivated by commitments to other methods of building electronic circuits, notably commitments to the army micromodule program. Other resistance came from the observation that semiconductors were inefficient materials for producing resistors and capacitors. This criticism began to fade with the introduction of products that incorporated integrated circuits. In 1961 Texas Instruments produced a set of chips for computer design. The following year the company produced an integrated circuit design for the guidance system of the Minuteman II missile. With the marketing strategy it had used for the transistor, Texas Instruments also produced a commercial product with integrated circuits, the pocket calculator. This calculator was demonstrated in 1966. Kilby worked on the design team, but he confined his work to the power supply of the calculator rather than the arithmetic circuits.

Through the 1960s Kilby rose through the ranks of Texas Instruments, leading the division that made integrated circuits, and became a vice president. Desiring to return to the work of invention, Kilby took a leave of absence from the company in 1970 and became an independent researcher. He accumulated sixty patents, most of which were concerned with the integrated circuit.

The decades that followed 1970 were marked by the expansion of products that incorporated the integrated circuit and also by a growing recognition of Kilby. The recognition came first from professional societies and then from universities, the National Academy of Engineers, and in 2000 from the Nobel Prize committee. As the first engineer to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics, Kilby was humble and cautious in his claims. He noted that he had made no fundamental insights into the nature of matter and was careful to recognize the insights of those before him who had worked on the integration of electronic components. He also announced that Noyce, who had died ten years earlier, deserved to share the prize. All that Kilby claimed for himself was the idea that he had made the integrated circuit work or, in his words, had “turned potentials into realities.” Kilby died of lymphoma on 20 June 2005 in Dallas, and was buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park. Long before Kilby’s death, his invention had become one of the building blocks of industrial society, a fundamental element in devices for control, communication, and calculation. The integrated circuit allowed engineers to expand the scope of electronics while giving them a tool for mastering the complexity of circuit design.

Jack Kilby, “Turning Potential into Realities: The Invention of the Integrated Circuit (Nobel Lecture),” ChemPhysChem 2, nos. 8–9 (2000): 482–489; and “The Integrated Circuit’s Early History,” Proceedings of the IEEE (Jan. 2000) summarize Kilby’s work. Kilby’s role in the development of electronics is explored in Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age (1997); and T. R. Reid, The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution (2001). Obituaries are in the New York Times and USA Today (both 22 June 2005). An oral history is in the Charles Babbage Institute of the University of Minnesota.

David Alan Grier

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Kilby, Jack St. Clair

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