Today (12 September 2008), the ubiquitous integrated circuit – or chip – celebrates its 50th birthday. As the brainchild of novice engineer Jack Kilby, the chip has gone on to fundamentally change the world.
Today it's hard to imagine a world without integrated circuits – almost every electronic device contains at least one; and the entire computer industry would be a completely different place were it not for this most basic of IT building blocks.
Kilby came up with the idea of the integrated circuit while working through the summer holidays at Texas Intruments (TI). He had recently joined the company and didn't yet qualify for leave so he spent a couple of quiet months working on the idea.
TI engineers had, for some time, been working on a project to repackage active and passive components. Kilby's breakthrough was to manufacture them all in place on a piece of semiconductor material.
On 12 September 1958, he was ready to show management his prototype. A piece of germanium about half the size of a paperclip containing all the required circuit components, was wired up to an oscilloscope. When the switch was flicked, the oscilloscope emitted a constant sine wave, indicating the the integrated circuit worked.
The integrated circuit was patented the following year and proved to be just one of 60 patents that would eventually be held by Kilby.
Although it's hard to imagine today, TI battled to interest computer and electronics companies in the integrated circuit.
Finally, in 1962, Kilby was challenged to create a calculator, based on an integrated circuit, that would perform as well as a desktop-sized device but fit in a pocket.
Thus Kilby also became the co-inventor of the handheld calculator, the device that finally launched the integrated circuit on its commercial journey.
The electronics industry owes a lot to Kilby. Since 1961 it has grown from $29-billion to $1 500-billion.
Not only has the integrated circuit almost single-handedly driven the computer industry, it is also an integral part of the medical, education, transport, manufacturing and entertainment industries.
Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst Jim Tully comments: "The development of the integrated circuit made possible great cost reductions in electronics. This allowed the technology to spread rapidly through all areas of society.
"Found in everything from memories and microprocessors to mobile phones, TVs, media players, navigation systems, games consoles, watches, cameras and countless other items, integrated circuits are so woven into our lives that it would be hard to imagine a world without them.
"Sales in integrated circuits have been growing at about 10% annually for the past several decades. Around $270-billion worth of integrated circuits will be sold globally in 2008.
"The integrated circuit is the engine of the information age. It has been a catalyst for the democratisation of knowledge and changing global social structures. It facilitates mass communication through mobile phones and large-scale access to information and entertainment through the Internet.
"But how do we compare these benefits with the life-saving use of integratred circuits in body scanners, pacemakers and other medical systems? Or the development of hearing aids that enhance people¹s quality of life? These benefits can't be compared – but we can be sure of one thing: the integrated circuit has benefited society in countless ways."