Friday, May 29, 2009

Jack Kilby

There are many heroes of the information age. The technology that drives our lives today, making them simpler and more efficient than could have even been dreamed of a mere 50 years ago is a compilation of the best ideas of many of the best thinkers of the time. Today’s hero comes from this group. Jack Kilby was a researcher with Texas Instruments in the late 1950’s. At this time, a computer was a huge entity, filling a room in order to be capable of performing relative simple computations. And it was certainly cost-prohibitive for even the wealthiest of households.

Kilby changed this with the invention of the integrated circuit (a.k.a. the microchip) in 1959. This chip replaced the bulky vacuum-tube design that had been used as the “guts” of these mammoth computers, and allowed more processing power in significantly less space. (To be fair, Robert Noyce completed work on an integrated circuit of his own within months of Kilby and they are today recognized as co-founders of the technology.)

The integrated circuit was first used in creating affordable hand-held calculators, but as I’m sure you are all aware, such circuitry is now common in a staggering array of devises, from high-tech toys like cell-phones and laptop computers to modernized versions of older technologies like refrigerators and automobiles.

Texas Instruments became a household name on the strength of the circuit invented by Kilby, becoming a leader in calculators and an early producer of home computers as well. Kilby left Texas instruments in the 1983 to continue to work on engineering projects of his own choosing and also spent time teaching a new generation of engineers at Texas A&M University.

Kilby passed away in 2005, and many of the stories written about him at the time describe a humble man, who deflected much of the praise directed his way regarding his greatest accomplishment. But as I type this entry on my tiny laptop, listening to music on my iPod, while my microwave oven warms my coffee, I join those who wish to make a big deal about Kilby’s life.


Amy said...

For anyone who is interested in learning more about Kilby and the invention of the microchip, the book, The Chip by T.R. Reid is a must-read. Reid tells the story with the proper admiration for the heroes he describes.

Kerry said...

Interesting...I'll check that out. Thanks for the tip!

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