People living in today’s Information Age can hardly imagine a world without computers. Computers are pervasive and have touched almost every arena of human life. But if you look back about 70 years ago, when things were just getting started, a different world existed.
The fabulous 40s had just popped the champagne over its first digital computer “Model K”, invented by George Stibitz. It was a relay based calculator that calculated using binary addition. The room-sized pre-computer shown in Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest flick The Imitation Game is a perfect example of what computers were like during that era. They were about the same size and weight as gargantuan double-decker buses and were covered with 18,000 buzzing electronic switches known as vacuum tubes. Such large room-sized computers would gobble up slews of energy to make the simplest of calculations.
The electronics industry during those times was dominated by fragile, power hungry and bulky vacuum tube technology. A little later they were replaced by something much smaller, reliable and longer lasting, known as transistors in the 1970s. The transistors inspired engineers to design something even more complex to handle large amounts of data which could also be reliable, cost-effective and minuscule in size. After all, isn’t necessity the mother of invention?
In the mid-summer of 1958, an American engineer Jack Kilby was left working virtually alone in a lab at Texas Instruments. A junior engineer at TI, he had expertise in ceramic-based circuit boards and transistorized hearing aids. He had joined the company only because TI agreed to let him work on electronic component miniaturization.
During that period, Kilby was working on a problem known as ‘the tyranny of numbers’ in circuit design. It meant that the more components a circuit had, the more and more difficult it was to fuse them together with the help of traditional wiring methods. To solve this issue, the junior engineer came up with an ingenious solution – manufacturing all circuit components in a single piece semiconductor substrate.
On September 12, 1958, Kilby pebbled together an unpolished device in the TI lab using a piece of a common semiconductor material – germanium. The Germanium circuit was then attached to an oscilloscope, which demonstrated a continuous sinewave, thus proving that his idea worked.
That is how the integrated circuit was born, ushering us into a new era that even Jack Kilby couldn’t have possibly imagined!
The integrated circuit was not only minuscule, less power consuming and reliable, but it was also very cost-effective even in terms of electronic functions. A year later, on February 6, 1959, a patent application for ‘solid circuit made of germanium’ was filed.
In the year of 2000, Jack Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution in the invention of the integrated circuit. A humble engineer that he was, he always gibed the idea of receiving such as honor, in spite of a lot of peers believing otherwise.
It’s quite hard to believe that the invention of something as tiny as the integrated circuit (IC) in 1958 which has been in the world for only half a century has changed the course of history and revolutionized so much!
Without the invention of the tiny integrated circuit or silicon chip as we call it, we wouldn’t have any far-reaching electronics products today at all. The chip virtually pushed us into an era of the information age, where yesterday’s room-sized machines are now replaced by pocket-sized computers known as smartphones. Silicon chips have restructured the way communication takes place in today’s age of instant messaging in the all facets of our lives today.
Without silicon chips, we wouldn’t have humans exploring the space or wanting to colonize on Mars. Without chips, the deaf wouldn’t be able to hear. The doctors wouldn’t have any medical diagnostic machines that exist today. We also wouldn’t have the iPods or mp3s, the laptops that we carry around everywhere, or routers or tvs or radios. Silicon chips continue to gift the world with newer and better technologies today.
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