The March 2024 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Spectral Lines (August 2005)

Jack St. Clair Kilby(1923-2005): Engineering Monolith

4 min read

When integrated circuit pioneer Jack Kilby went to Stockholm to pick up his share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics, he began his lecture with a story borrowed from Charles Townes, a fellow Nobel laureate and IEEE Medal of Honor winner. "It's like the beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam: 'I didn't build it myself. But it's based on an idea of mine.'"

It was a glimpse into the mind and the heart of the man whose invention helped lay the foundation for today's US $179 billion chip industry and, as the Nobel Foundation noted, of all of information technology.

The great and the gifted among us are rarely blessed with humility and generosity, too. Kilby was. When he died, he was living in the same modest house he had bought when he first joined Texas Instruments, in 1958. The morning that word came from Stockholm that he'd won the Nobel Prize, Kilby met reporters in front of that home wearing a green bathrobe. Colleagues called the quiet, tall inventor "the gentle giant."

Photo: Texas Instruments

Jack Kilby with his 1958 engineering notebook describing the IC

He spent his formative years in Great Bend, Kan., where his father was the president of an electric power company. In fact, one of his formative experiences was working with his father and a group of amateur radio operators to restore power after a storm.

The outline of Kilby's story of invention is well known. How he went to Texas Instruments from a Milwaukee electronics firm because TI was interested in the problem of miniaturizing electronic components and encouraged his own interest. That in the summer of 1958, while the rest of the company was off on its summer break, he developed what came to be known as "The Monolithic Idea"--basically, that if circuit elements such as transistors, resistors, and capacitors could all be made of the same material, they could be included on a single semiconductor chip.

If it worked, Kilby's idea would solve the "tyranny of numbers" problem--the sheer difficulty of reliably wiring, by hand, the connections among thousands (let alone hundreds of millions) of discrete devices, such as transistors or tubes. By the end of World War II, electronic systems had already become complex--the 1946 ENIAC computer, for example, contained more than 17 000 vacuum tubes and was hugely expensive to build and keep running.

Still, TI officials were skeptical about Kilby's IC ideas. They were won over after Kilby built a primitive but functional IC. The IC was simultaneously being pursued by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore and others, and Kilby fondly recalled how they all "provided the technical entertainment at professional meetings" as they debated the merits of different approaches--none of which were immediately embraced. It took the Apollo moon mission and the Minuteman missile program in the late 1960s to establish IC technology as the technology of choice. During that same time, Kilby, at the behest of TI, developed the first handheld calculator to demonstrate the usefulness of ICs to the average consumer.

And while they all knew that the IC was critical to solving the problems directly in front of them, none realized how widespread the use of ICs would become, stashed now in everything from cellphones to teddy bears. When IEEE Spectrum last interviewed Kilby in the summer of 2004 for our 40th-anniversary issue, he was still amazed and captivated by the way electronics was evolving.

Many people have stories about Kilby's kindness and generosity. It has often been noted that Kilby went out of his way to include Robert Noyce in his Nobel acceptance speech (Noyce is credited with developing the process for mass-producing ICs). We have our own story. After he won the Nobel Prize, we sent Kilby a congratulatory note and our good wishes. Much to our astonishment, a few weeks later we got back a handwritten note from him, thanking us, expressing his surprise and pleasure at having received the prize, and telling us how much he enjoyed Spectrum. Some fan mail!

Will he ever become a folk hero like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford? Such fame eluded him in his lifetime (and we don't think he cared much about it anyway), although his peers recognized his achievement pretty much instantly, and over the years they awarded him virtually every big and small prize they had to offer. He, Noyce, Moore, and all the rest of the founding fathers and mothers of the endlessly new world of electronics certainly deserve to be a cherished and more widely recognized part of our cultural heritage.

To Probe Further

Kilby's Nobel lecture and autobiographical essay are available at https://nobelprize.org/physics/laureates/2000.

There is an interview with Kilby in Engineering Tomorrow: Today's Technology Experts Envision the Next Century, by Janie Fouke, Trudy E. Bell, and Dave Dooling (IEEE Press, 1999).

An excellent account of the invention of the IC is published in The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, by T.R. Reid (Random House, 2001).

Jack St. Clair Kilby passed away 20 June 2005 in Dallas, following a brief battle with cancer. Those wishing to make memorial contributions can donate to the following:

The Jack Kilby Fund in Electrical and Computer Engineering, the University of Illinois Foundation, Harker Hall, 1305 West Green, Urbana, IL 61801; The Great Bend Foundation (Jack Kilby Statue Fund), P.O. Drawer E, Great Bend, KS 67530.

Editor's Note: The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not represent official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum at n.hantman@ieee.org.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions