Story of the Microchip

MicrochipThe microchip permeates almost every facet of our lives. Almost all of us know about the microchip that is in our computer, but we don’t give much credit to the microchips in our cars, watches, gaming devices, children’s toys and mobile phones. In fact almost anything that enjoys electricity has a good chance of having a microchip involved.

So where did it all begin?

The advent of the microchip is actually attributed two different people – Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce. They both were working on similar projects, at similar times.

Jack Kilby

In the summer of 1958 Jack Kilby was hired by Texas Instruments to work on the possibility of miniaturising circuits. Shortly after starting the company closed down for its annual two week holiday. Not having been at the company long enough, Kilby stayed behind to work on his project. He decided that the only thing that a semi-conductor manufacturer could make effectively was semi-conductors. He started sketching ideas where the whole circuit was made from the same material. When his manager returned, Kilby showed him the sketches of his ideas. His boss gave him the go ahead.

On September 12, 1958, Kilby presented his invention. It was a solid bar of germanium (similar to silicon) measuring 7/16 x 1/16-inches. It was glued to a glass slide and was rather unattractive. However when Kilby applied voltage, an unending sine wave made its way across the oscilloscope screen. Kilby said that on that day, they reduced the cost of electronic functions by a factor of a million to one.

Robert Noyce

At almost the exact same time in California, a man by the name of Robert Noyce was working on the same problem. Noyce was co-founder of the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. Using much the same methodology (Noyce used silicon rather than germanium), Noyce and his team devised a circuit on a single chip.

Noyce knew that Texas Instruments had already filed a patent for a similar design and so filed a highly detailed application in hopes that it would not infringe on Texas Instruments’ work.

Noyce’s patent was granted first, despite Kilby having filed his application five months earlier. A legal battle resulted which lasted most of the sixties, before both companies agreed to cross license their technology – a move that would ultimately benefit electronic parts suppliers worldwide.

Joint credit

Today, both men are credited with the invention of the microchip. Kilby became Nobel Prize laureate for his contribution and Noyce, who passed away in 1990, went on to found Intel – the world’s largest and highest valued semiconductor chip maker.

Throughout the 70s the US dominated the microchip scene, thanks in part to The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency started a programme called MOSIS (Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation System), which allowed individual scientists and researchers to test new chip ideas based on a set of design rules.

Through collaboration and healthy competition, the microchip industry has come on leaps and bounds over the past five decades and truly revolutionised the world. So much so that it is sometimes it is easy to forget that the electronics industry is still in its infancy. What comes next is anyone’s guess.