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IF YOU WERE ASKED TO NAME three American inventors, likely answers would include Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and maybe someone like Eli Whitney. Here's a second question. Who invented the microchip?

Need some clues? He won the Nobel Prize in 2000, and, like Edison, he held many patents (more than 60). Obviously, his microchip invention has had far greater influence on our lives than the cotton gin and even the telephone. Your car, your watch, cell phone, television, your dog (implanted ID chip), your smart card, the kid's singing bear--they all probably depend on microchips. Not to mention the entire universe of computers that can produce financial data, animated cartoons, and three-dimensional images of your heart or brain. So, who was the Edison of the integrated electronic circuit who made all of the above possible? He died June 20 at his home, and many newspapers noted his passing.

The Larger Question

Maybe the question we should be examining is why Jack St. Clair Kilby wasn't memorialized in the way his career would indicate he deserved. We have replaced the famous in our culture with celebrities whose noteworthiness is temporary and hollow, based more on perception than reality. We carefully keep track of reality TV "personalities," singers, and actors and are only temporarily distracted when scientists, artists, and humanitarians are announced by the Nobel Committee. Not that we would bother to take note of their names.

But suppose we were forced to make the following choice. We have to spend the next six months in one of two worlds. In the first, all reality TV will be prohibited and video rental stores will close their doors. In the second, all microchips will be nonfunctional for six months. What do you think--A or B?

OK, that's already too many questions. Let's look instead at the accomplishments of the man who so changed our lives with a simple, elegant idea. Jack Kilby wrote in his notebook the following description of the idea: "The following circuit elements could be made on a single slice: resistors, capacitor, distributed capacitor, transistor." Use a single slice of either silicon or germanium and get rid of all the wires connecting the components.

Actually, there were two men who helped create today's integrated circuit. Jack Kilby was working at Texas Instruments in 1959, and Robert Noyce was at Fairchild Semiconductor, a company he co-founded. Both engineers were working on the same problem, and both applied for patents in 1959. Kilby and his employer, Texas Instruments, were granted a patent for miniaturized electronic circuits. Noyce and his company were given a patent for a silicon-based integrated circuit. Jack Kilby's invention preceded Noyce's by six months. History will likely credit Kilby with the idea and Noyce for making it a practical reality. Don't feel too badly for Robert Noyce, though--he did go on to co-found Intel later in his career.

The Legacy

It would be impossible to trace all the directions taken by this single invention. That's because the only limits were those placed on the imaginations of the inventors and engineers who followed Kilby and Royce. Consider the amazing device shown on the right. It's called a BrailleNote PK. It's represented by its distributor, Humanware, as the world's smallest Braille and speech personal digital assistant: a PDA for the blind that measures 6.8 5 3.6 5 1.3 inches.

The eight keys near the top are a Braille keyboard, and the circular object, center top, is a speaker. The "screen" is embedded in the long rectangle at the bottom made up of a high-definition 18-cell Braille display. The BrailleNote can talk to wireless devices like cell phones and keyboards through Bluetooth, it connects to a PC via USB, and a WiFi card opens it up to the Internet using Explorer V.6 as its browser. Output switches from Braille to synthesized voice and even to music. (

How much more meaningful would this invention be to a sightless person compared to, say, Edison's crowning achievement, the incandescent bulb?

Some think we are approaching the end of the line for electronic miniaturization in chip form. When, and if, we reach that point where they can't be made any smaller, as circuits get molecular, the Kilby/ Noyce design might be replaced. If so, their invention will have taken us further than either man probably ever imagined. Today, though, we at least owe them the respect to teach the American Idol generation their names.

Michael Castelluccio, Editor
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Title Annotation:Tech Forum; Jack St. Clair Kilby, inventor of integrated circuits and Nobel prize winner
Author:Castelluccio, Michael
Publication:Strategic Finance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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