Celebrating the IC's 50th anniversary

The integrated circuit has turned 50.

The technology behind almost every electronics device in the world, the integrated circuit or IC, celebrated its 50th anniversary on Friday. Its enduring success is thanks in part to two "nice guys" who developed it, and their early efforts to convince an industry that at first reviled their idea.

The two men, Jack Kilby from Texas Instruments (TI) and Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel but head of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor when the IC was invented, long lived with the title of "co-inventor" of the integrated circuit.

The IC industry, or chip industry, is now globally closing in on US$300 billion a year in revenue, and the information technology industry behind it just wouldn't be what it is without it.

Chips are the brains and nervous system of every electronics device around, from computers to iPhones and are finding their way into more devices all the time, including cars and refrigerators, to make them more energy efficient.

In 1960, computers not even as powerful as a US$1,000 PC today still required the space of an entire room and cost US$10 million. That all changed due to ICs.

In the 1950s, the electronics industry had just started using transistors, diodes, resistors and other electronic components instead of vacuum tubes, but the new circuitry was still bulky and expensive.

Kilby came up with the idea to combine this circuitry on one chip.

"In 1958, my goals were simple," said Kilby in a lecture given after accepting the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000, "to lower the cost, simplify the assembly and make things smaller and more reliable."

Noyce integrated transistors and other components onto a single piece of silicon to form a chip. Prior to his idea, Fairchild made transistors on silicon, but then cut them out and sold them separately.

The world's first chips were born.

By most accounts, Kilby showed the first working integrated circuit to TI executives on Sept. 12, 1958, the reason today is viewed as the 50th anniversary.

But Noyce and other researchers at Fairchild Semiconductor, including Intel's other co-founder, Gordon Moore, had been working on their own concepts and showed off their integrated circuit shortly thereafter.

Moore has argued that Noyce's IC was more practical and easier to manufacture than Kilby's original.

In any case, their invention could easily have been destroyed by patent battles and fighting over who would get credit for the IC and potentially lucrative royalties.

At first, it looked as though that might happen.

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