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Reporter Remembers Microchip Inventor Jack Kilby

June 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Not so long ago, computers filled entire rooms, big rooms. But then, Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit in 1958. The same processing power could now fit on a small chip half the size of a paper clip — the world’s first microchip. That first chip had one transistor.

Today, it’s possible to squeeze more than 100 million transistors in the same amount of space. Kilby’s breakthrough coincided with a similar invention by Robert Noyce, the co-founder of Intel. Together, they helped shape the electronic era. Look around.

Without the microchip, there would be no personal computers, microwave ovens, cell phones, digital watches, iPods, even cars. Kilby spent his career working for Dallas-based Texas Instruments, and also invented the handheld calculator while he was there.

PHIL RITTER: We’re very much indebted to him and to his contributions, not only to our company, but to society, so we celebrate his life, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: In 2000, Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his microchip invention. He died in Dallas on Monday at 81.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of person was Kilby, and what did he think of his breakthrough? For that, we turn to Kilby’s chronicler and friend, T.R. Reid. He’s the Washington Post’s Rocky Mountain bureau chief and author of “The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution.”

Well when Jack Kilby, T.R. Reid, was faced with that design challenge, that engineering challenge, what did he figure out? What is an integrated circuit?

T.R. REID: You know, Jack always said he solved this problem because he was the dumb freshman. All the experts knew that his idea would never work. He was too dumb to know it was impossible. So he made it work. You know, these sophisticated electronic devices have tens of millions, hundreds of millions of components.

In the late ’50s they all had wires sticking out of them and you had to wire them altogether, which was just impossible. Jack said why don’t we get rid of the wires? Well all the experts knew that every circuit ever built had wires in it. But he designed one without wires. That first one he built in 1958 had about half a dozen components on it. Today, Ray, the chip in your blackberry has about half a billion.

RAY SUAREZ: The chairman of Texas Instruments said in my opinion there are only a handful of people whose works have truly transformed the world and the way we live in it: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Jack Kilby. Fair comment?

T.R. REID: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. Jack and Bob Noyce had an idea that improved the daily life of the world for just about everybody on the planet. And you know, Ray, we’re lucky — I mean, engineers all over the world were looking for the integrated circuit for the solution that Jack got.

And we’re lucky that it was our countrymen and our industry that did it. I mean, if Japan or Germany had invented the chip, you know, Silicon Valley today might still be a peach orchard. All those jobs and that wealth might be overseas.

RAY SUAREZ: Then why isn’t Jack Kilby a household name like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford?

T.R. REID: Exactly. I’ve been asking this question for 30 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have an answer for me?

T.R. REID: I’ve written two books about it. Because my book didn’t do what it was supposed to do. You know, Thomas Edison was the most famous man on earth ten years after he invented the light bulb. I think it’s a function of society. I think Americans are more interested in P. Diddy or Scott Peterson than in two contemporary Americans with a good idea that changed the world for the better.

I point the blame in my book at society and our big media machines, not that Jack cared. Believe me, Jack was totally unflappable by all the attention he got. I went to Stockholm with Jack and his family for the Nobel Prize, and he was surprised that the Royal Academy sent a limousine to take him to the awards ceremony. He said, “I could take a taxi.”

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the two young men behind Google recently became billionaires many, many, many times over. Did Jack Kilby get rich from his inventions?

T.R. REID: No, Jack was perfectly comfortable middle class, but he never became a zillionaire out of this. You know what? I don’t think he cared. Jack was an engineer. He defined an engineer as a person who solves problems. He knew at the end of his life that he had solved a crucially important engineering problem and for him that was more important than money.

RAY SUAREZ: And we also watched him and Noyce work out the bragging rights over who gets to get called father of the microchip, didn’t we?

T.R. REID: Yeah, I think they handled it very nicely. It was partly the markets. Their two companies Fairchild and Texas Instruments had a ten-year patent battle, but in the meantime the chip became so important that nobody could wait for the patent to be resolved so they just — everybody agreed. We’ll call it a co-invention.

I think thousands of companies from all over the world have paid patent rights to both TI and to Fairchild and Intel for this invention. So, yeah, they worked it out in a very gentlemanly way. They’re co-inventors; and they were very happy; they were both perfectly satisfied with that.

RAY SUAREZ: With such an invention like the integrated circuit on your resume it seems almost secondary. And if you read the obits it’s way, way down. He also invented the hand-held calculator, which isn’t a small feat.

T.R. REID: Yeah, exactly. What happened was, you know, the first use for the microchip was the military and John F. Kennedy’s program to send people to the moon. But they were then looking for a consumer application. And the boss of TI went to Jack Kilby, his giant, and said, “Jack, we got to have something to use this so we can sell it to people.” And so he yes, he invented the calculator powered by chips, and he invented the little tiny printer inside the calculator to get the result out.

RAY SUAREZ: So maybe this is the beginning of turning around and getting his name more prominently in the history books.

T.R. REID: Man, I think every school board ought to be teaching about Bob Noyce and Jack Kilby. Every American should know who they are. Come on, people. These people changed the world. They’re more important than pop stars or, you know, run-away brides. Let’s focus our attention where it belongs.

RAY SUAREZ: T.R. Reid, thanks for being with us.

T.R. REID: Delighted, Ray.