Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Beaver and the Rabbit

Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit, dies well-appreciated.
June 22, 2005

Kilby Invention being the mother of necessity—A very important, and by all accounts, nice man died yesterday; Jack Kilby, who won the Nobel Prize for his invention of the integrated circuit. You can’t get much more important than that. Kilby died in his home at the age of 81, wealthy and apparently contented. You can't get more important than that either. He said once that he wasn’t too impressed with prizes—it took 40 years for the Nobel Committee to give him one—but was mightily impressed by just how ubiquitous his invention has become in modern life.

The story goes back to the late 1950s. Kilby, all 6-foot-7 of him, was in a technology race at the time with Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore who had just split with William Shockley at Shockley Semiconductor and formed their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. The transistor was about 10-years old, clunky and underutilized. Kilby was at Texas Instruments. The only thing everyone agreed on was that any chips containing the transistors would be made of silicon. Shockley had determined that. How to put it all together was an engineering conundrum.

Kilby jumped first. He conceived of a manufacturing system that permitted the miniaturization of electronic circuits on semiconductor chips, which came to be called integrated circuits, or ICs, and he filed a patent in 1959. TI could sell the chips for $450 each, a lot of money in those days.

The first ICs, however, were clumsy to manufacture and had one basic problem: the transistors still had to be wired together. At Fairchild, however, Noyce adapted a system called “planar” manufacturing, in which all the transistors and resistors were formed together on the silicon, with the metal wiring embedded in the silicon. His IC was essentially all one piece. He filed for a patent five months after TI. [They eventually moved on, founding Intel].

Naturally, a lawsuit followed, as TI claimed patent infringement by Fairchild. A court eventually found for Fairchild, but any company wish to produce ICs needed licenses from both companies. Kilby, who apparently did not have the entrepreneurial gene, stayed with TI and while he never became obscenely rich, he was well taken care of. He also invented the hand-held calculator there.

He once described what he did in a parable. A rabbit and a beaver were standing in the shadow of Hoover Dam and the rabbit asked the beaver if he made the dam. “No,” said the beaver, “I didn’t build it myself. But it’s based on an idea of mine.”

[There are lots of good stories on Kilby. See T. R. Reid’s piece in the Washington Post, and an interesting press release, issued before Kilby died, from the University of Texas.

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