65 years ago: The 'Big bang' of microelectronics

The very first Integrated Circuit by Jack Kilby

The very first Integrated Circuit by Jack Kilby

The first Integrated Circuit

Now that the end of the summer holidays in Bavaria comes closer, here is the story of an engineer who was not allowed to take a vacation - and who made a groundbreaking invention during this time.

Jack Kilby had just started his new job at Texas Instruments in Dallas in the summer of 1958 and was therefore banned from taking holidays. While his colleagues were all away on vacation, the lonely Kilby made good use of the time in the empty laboratory. When his team returned from the holidays, Kilby presented them with a milestone in the history of technology on September 12, 1958: the first integrated circuit, practically the progenitor of the microchip.

A decisive breakthrough towards microelectronics had taken place a few years earlier with the invention of the transistor: In 1947, John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Houser Brattain developed the bipolar transistor at Bell Laboratories - still the cornerstone of all microelectronics today. Together, they received the Nobel Prize for this in 1956. Important steps in this direction had already been taken earlier (Julius Edgar Lilienfeld recieved the first patent for the transistor principle in 1925), but they were not ready for practical use.

Breakthrough with semiconductors

Jack Kilby

Jack Kilby

The transistor could now replace the large, heavy electronic valves, but since a lot of transistors were needed for more complex computational tasks and these had to be wired in a complex way, the problem was still that a lot of space and material was needed for the calculating machines.

This problem was solved by Jack St. Clair Kilby from Great Bend, Kansas (1923-2005). He combined transistor, resistor and capacitor on a common component. The decisive factor with the Integrated Circuit (IC) is the fact that the components are mounted on a plate, which is itself a component of the circuit. The semiconductor material (Kilby used germanium, today silicon is most common) saves cabling and makes it possible to accommodate a large number of transistors in a very small space.

Kilby's circuit was a so-called "flip-flop" or "bistable multivibrator". Such one-bit memories are still the basic element of any computer memory today.

Kilby's invention did not come out of the blue: Werner Jacobi, who worked for Siemens & Halske in Erlangen, had already filed his "semiconductor amplifier" with the DPMA in 1949 ( pdf-Datei DE833366B), which anticipated essential elements of an integrated circuit. The British electrical engineer Geoffrey Dummer is also said to have designed an integrated circuit around 1950 (but without having applied for IP rights).

The first one to register takes the prize

"Miniaturized electronic circuits": drawing from Kilby´s US 3138743

"Miniaturized electronic circuits": drawing from Kilby´s US 3138743

The story of Kilby and the IC is also a lesson that shows once again how important it is to quickly register and protect your intellectual property. At the same time and independently of Kilby, Robert Noyce had also developed the integrated circuit( pdf-Datei US 2981877A). Noyce worked for Fairchild Semiconductors, who had just developed the first diffusion bipolar transistor. Noyce was even one step ahead of Kilby and was already using photolithographic processes and diffusion processes to produce his IC. But Kilby was the first to apply for a patent for his development ( pdf-Datei US 3138743 A).

There were years of patent disputes, but in retrospect Kilby and Noyce went down in history as equal inventors of the IC. When Kilby received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000, he was certain that he would have been awarded the prize together with Noyce had he been alive: "While Robert and I followed our own paths, we worked hard together to achieve commercial acceptance for integrated circuits. If he were still living, I have no doubt we would have shared this prize." Noyce, co-founder of Intel and early investor of AMD, had already died in 1990.

Rapid development deep into the nano range

"Semiconductur device-and-lead structure": drawing from Robert Noyce´s US 2981877 A

"Semiconductur device-and-lead structure": drawing from Robert Noyce´s US 2981877 A

But when Kilby and Noyce developed the IC in the late 1950s, virtually nothing happened at first. It took some time for the IC and the first microprocessors to establish themselves on the market. A milestone was the first pocket calculator presented by Texas Instruments in 1966, in whose development Kilby played a major role. Kilby is also regarded as the father of the thermal printer.

The integrated circuit is still the basic element of digital technology today, whether in kitchen appliances, smartphones, cars and, of course, computers. As Moore's Law predicted in 1965, the number of circuits that can be accommodated on a chip doubles every 18 months or so. Today, the microprocessor of a PC can contain several billion transistors.

But how can such an unimaginable number of circuits be accommodated on a small silicone plate? Semiconductor wafers prepared with photoresist are usually exposed in various steps using a photolithographic process. The complex structures of the microchip are applied. Today, these structures can be resolved into the single-digit nanometer range.

Text: Dr. Jan Björn Potthast, Pictures: Texas Instruments, DEPATIsnet

Last updated: 4 September 2023