Invention of the Microchip
Thursday, 03 June 2010
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Invention of the Microchip
Silicon chip
Divided and together

Without the microchip it is unlikely that computers would have become commonplace.  Its invention was a key stage in the development of computing and is credited to two individuals - Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce.


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Should we include the inventor of every important electronic device in the list of computer creators?

Should the man who invented the valve, John Ambrose Fleming (1894-1945), be given a place in the history of computing?

Probably not, but the use of silicon to create integrated circuits is so central to the modern computer that the situation is very different.

It is doubtful if the chip would have been worth inventing at all if it wasn't for its potential use in computers and it is certain that computers would still be rare without the silicon chip. So close are the two that when the personal computer was first introduced it was very common for the press to become quite confused about the identities of the microchip and the microcomputer revolution. Interestingly the technology of the microchip was invented by two people - Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby.

noyce

Robert Noyce (1927 - 1990)

kilby

Jack St. Clair Kilby (1923-2005)

 

Size matters

The first electronic computers were huge because the individual active elements - the valves - used to make it were large and because all the interconnecting wiring need space. The very size limited the power of the machine in two different ways. The first was the sheer volume needed for a machine with a large number of active elements and the second was the time it took for signals to travel along the connecting wires.

These were two vital reasons why the size of a computer has to be reduced before it could become really useful.

Move to transistors

Using transistors was the first step in reducing the total size of a machine by reducing the size of the active element. The trouble was that it did very little for the interconnection problem. Being able to cram more active devices into the same space simply increased the number of connections that had to be made. The more you crammed in the more the number of connections increased - this became known as the "tyranny of numbers" and it had to be solved to allow the computer to progress.

When William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, set up shop in what was to become Silicon Valley he recruited the best people he could find. Robert Noyce was so confident that he was among the best that he rented a house near the company before the interview! He didn't stay with Shockley for long. In 1958 he and a group of engineers left to found Fairchild. It is an interesting footnote that they each invested $500 in this new company.

Around about the same time Jack Kilby had just started with Texas Instruments which  was definitely not located in Silicon Valley. At the time TI was trying to make a name for itself in the defence business and one of their projects was to produce a sort of electronic lego. The idea was the components would be fitted into some kind of standard connector which could be pushed together to make circuits.

TI had a policy of everyone taking their holiday at the same time but Kilby hadn't worked long enough to be entitled to a holiday - so he worked on while the plant was shut down. He knew that he would be working on the Micro-Module project when the holiday was over and he didn't think it would work. So he tried to find an alternative.

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