This month in tech history: February 1959 – Integrated circuit patented Credit: Image credit: http://engineeringhistory.tumblr.com
IT & Systems Management

This month in tech history: February 1959 – Integrated circuit patented

6 February 1959 – Jack Kilby files patent for integrated circuit

The question of who invented the integrated circuit seems to be somewhat controversial. In my stumblings around the internet I found many sites hailed Jack Kilby as inventor, including, unsurprisingly, Texas Instruments, where Kilby was working at the time. Others however, the Computer History Museum among them, recognise that the prototype produced by Kilby in 1958 “was but one of many attempts to build such a device that had been underway for several years”. What is clear however, is that Jack Kilby filed a patent application called “miniaturized electronic circuits” for his work on a multi-transistor device on 6 February 1959.

 

What are integrated circuits and where did they begin?

The integrated circuits (IC), or computer chip/microchip, is a basic building block of today’s tech. Physically, it is an analog and/or digital circuit with internal connections, on a single piece of semiconducting material.

Attempts to integrate electronic circuits into a single device began ten years before Kilby’s patent application. German physicist and engineer Werner Jacobi [German] was the first to have the idea when he developed and patented the first known integrated transistor amplifier in 1949. A few years later, British radio engineer Geoffrey Dummer suggested integrating a range of standard electronic components in a monolithic semiconductor crystal, and a year after that, in 1953, Harwick Johnson filed a patent for a prototype integrated circuit.

However despite the great ideas, it wasn’t until 1958 that a breakthrough meant the ideas could become reality. Three people, from three US companies, solved three fundamental problems, and Jack Kilby was just one of them. While he patented the principle of integration, created the first prototype ICs and commercialised them, Kurt Lehovec of Sprague Electric Company figured out how to electrically isolate components on a semiconductor crystal, and Robert Noyce (who went on to co-found Intel) of Fairchild Semiconductor solved the problem of connecting the IC components and proposed an improved version of insulation (based on planar technology by ‘traitorous eight’ member Jean Hoerni).

 

Patents for the integrated circuits

In 1959 both Jack Kilby and Texas Instruments, and Robert Noyce and the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, filed patents. Kilby and TI received US patent #3,138,743 for miniaturized electronic circuits. Noyce and the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation received US patent #2,981,877 for a silicon-based integrated circuit. A patent war began between the two companies, lasting several years, before they decided to cross-license the technologies, creating a global market now worth about $1 trillion a year.

 

Commercial release

Integrated circuits might be everywhere now, but in the early days they were very expensive, and not everyone saw the benefit.

But what ... is it good for?

Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM commenting on the microchip

The first commercially available ICs came from the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation in 1961, when all computers started to be made using chips. Texas Instruments first used the chips in Air Force computers and the Minuteman II missile in 1962. The original IC had only one transistor, three resistors and one capacitor, and was around the size of an adult’s little finger. Today an IC smaller than a penny can hold 125 million transistors.

Almost all modern products use chip technology.

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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Associate Editor at IDG Connect

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