Though there is no one integrated circuit inventor, the idea for this technology occurred concurrently among several different scientists and engineers involved in developing computing technology since the early 1900s. In the first half of the 20th century, vacuum tubes dominated electronic devices. The first giant computers commissioned by the US government in the 1940s also utilized vacuum tube technology.
In the late 1940s, UK engineer Geoffrey Dummer developed theories about electronic devices’ ability to store and transmit information, leading to the development of integrated circuits. In 1947, Bell Telephone Laboratories invented transistors, which began replacing vacuum tubes in electronic devices. These transistors used much less power and were far more reliable, with the added benefit of reducing the size and complexity of what were still massive computing devices.
Dummer sought to deal with an issue known as the “Tyranny of Numbers,” which dealt with the complexities inherent in making scientists’ theories about these systems possible in reality. Though an improvement over vacuum tubes, transistors still had limitations that prevented engineers from building the circuits they designed.
As electronic devices moved towards using transistors, they still weren’t small enough to significantly reduce the size of computing devices. At the time, electronic devices also required hand-soldering, a time-consuming task that made electrical equipment expensive. They also used a great deal of wiring, so were extraordinarily fragile. Just one bad part or connection could make the whole thing useless.
Transistors were still a considerable improvement over vacuum tube technology. As a leader in this technological breakthrough, Bell funded seminars to promote its new transistors and issue production licenses. One of these forums in 1952 brought Dummer’s theories to the attention of Jack Kilby, an engineer paid to attend the conference by his employer, Centralab.
Kilby’s introduction to Dummer’s theories encouraged him to work towards further reducing the size of the circuitry required to build computing devices. After several years during which he worked on ways to miniaturize circuitry, Kilby began a new position at Texas Instruments, where he was given free rein to concentrate on how to miniaturize electronic components best.
In 1958, Kilby began work on the Micro-Module program, which sought to resolve the problem of the Tyranny of Numbers as Dummer had before him. Electronic equipment then used discrete components like transistors to serve as both switches and amplifiers, resistors to impede electron flow and capacitors in which these electrons were stored as information. These components were manufactured separately on circuit boards, which were both expensive to make and unwieldy.
Micro-modules used standard shapes and sizes for electronic components, with the wiring already built in. These could snap together easily to create a variety of circuits that required no wiring, which made them less fragile and easier to manufacture.
Yet Kilby felt these micro-modules were only a half-measure, as they didn’t reduce how many components were needed. He tested his theory using passive devices and transistors to make a complete circuit. In September 1958, shortly after beginning his job at Texas Instruments, Kilby demonstrated the veracity of his theory by running electricity through a slab with an oscilloscope to measure the voltage variance over time. This resulted in the development of the first integrated circuit, for which he eventually received a Novel Prize in 2000.
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