Unlike the invention of television which was replete with snooping, spying and court- room drama, invention of integrated circuit (IC) was the outcome of two engineers who developed it separately without knowing each other and a host of unsung heroes.
IC is an invention that changed the way of the world forever. As usual, the Nobel committee took its time to award a Nobel and finally the award came in the year 2000 for an invention of 1958. The Nobel winner wrote in his autobiography submitted to the Nobel committee, “I would like to mention another right person at the right time, namely, Robert Noyce, a contemporary of mine who worked at Fairchild Semiconductor. While Robert and I followed our own paths, we worked hard together to achieve commercial acceptance for ICs. If he were still alive, I have no doubt we would have shared this prize.” In this world torn with jealousy, personal egos, profits and politics, salute the unassuming inventor Jack Kilby!
And the tribute for him? Unprecedented growth of ICs. The very first IC contained only four transistors, and the present-day chip Core i5 contains 995 million transistors. He “didn’t realise then that the integrated circuit would reduce the cost of electronic functions by a factor of a million to one.”
Transistor was an outstanding invention which revolutionised electronics. But building complex circuits required a large number of transistors and other passive components. Think of those long-standing ICs, 741 and 555. The ubiquitous 741 op-amp designed by Dave Fullagar in Fairchild Semiconductor in 1968. 555 IC was first introduced around 1971 as ‘The IC Time Machine.’ Designed in 1971 by Hans Camenzind under contract to Signetics, it still sells about one billion units every year. Think of wiring those 741 or 555 ICs individually which have 20 and 28 transistors, respectively. It is a mammoth task and sheer ‘tyranny of numbers.’
It was in this tyrannical scenario that Jack Kilby joined the semiconductor lab at Texas Instruments in 1958. Soon he was asked to develop smaller electrical circuits, kind of micro-modules, specifically for the military. As he proceeded with his task, he was not convinced that the micro-module was the answer—still a large number of components needed to be hardwired.
Three problems were bogging down the development of microelectronics: integration, isolation and connection. There was no way of integrating all different active and passive components on a single semiconductor crystal. Even if connected, there was no way to electrically isolate them. Also, there was no way to connect individual components, at best they could be done with gold wires.
Geoffrey Dummer thought otherwise, “With the advent of the transistor and the work on semiconductors generally, it now seems possible to envisage electronic equipment in a solid block with no connecting wires. The block may comprise layers of insulating, conducting, rectifying and amplifying materials, the electronic functions being connected directly by cutting out areas of the various layers.”
He said so in his paper at the US Electronic Components Symposium. Geoffrey William Arnold Dummer, a British electronics engineer and consultant, is credited as ‘The Prophet of the Integrated Circuit.’
Kilby thought likewise; he summed up the thoughts in his mind of those days in a later day in the year 1976’s article titled ‘Invention of the IC,’ thus, “Further thought led me to the conclusion that semiconductors were all that were really required—that resistors and capacitors (passive devices), in particular, could be made from the same material as the active devices (transistors). I also realised that, since all of the components could be made of a single material, they could also be made in situ interconnected to form a complete circuit.” He began sketching his ideas.
Providentially in July 1958, he was alone in the deserted laboratory as the rest of the lab was on a virtual holiday. He was not able to take leaves like his other colleagues as he had joined the company recently. He started working on his idea to bring all the parts of the chip under one block of the semiconductor, as one monolithic unit. The result—a slice of a centimetre-wide germanium, with protruding wires, glued to glass slide.
He gathered several executives, including former Texas Instruments Chairman Mark Shepherd, for a demonstration event on September 12, 1958. When Kilby pressed the switch, an unending sine curve undulated across the oscilloscope screen. We have the first IC, a ‘phase-shift oscillator.’ The patent for the first IC, ‘Solid Circuit made of Germanium,’ was filed on February 6, 1959, and the world never looked back.
There is an unprecedented growth in the ICs and microprocessors, but did Jack Kilby take all the credit for this? No! He said, “Well, I don’t know that I get credit for their profound effect. It’s true that the original idea was mine, but what you see today is the work of probably tens of thousands of the world’s best engineers, all concentrating on improving the product, reducing the cost, things of that sort.” Kilby was very right when further improvements and developments are the handiwork of a number of engineers and scientists. Let us begin from the beginning. Let us look at those who “have had even a small part in helping turn the potential of human creativity into practical reality.”
Transistor: the starting point
Early morning on November 1, 1956, William Shockley received a telephone call informing him that he had won the Nobel Prize in physics along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor. Nine years ago on December 23, 1947, they invented the point contact transistor at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The name ‘transistor’ was coined by John R. Pierce.
The first silicon transistor was presented by Morris Tanenbaum at Bell Labs on January 26, 1954. Gordon Teal, with expertise in high-purity crystals, takes the credit for the first commercial silicon transistor in 1954.
Shockley subsequently designed a junction transistor. He was well known for his smart examples. Once a student confessed his inability to understand the concept of amplification. Shockley told him, “Take a bale of hay and tie it to the tail of a mule. Then strike a match and set the bale of hay on fire. Now compare the energy expended shortly thereafter by the mule with the energy expended in striking the match, you will understand the concept of amplification.”
Shockley left Bell Labs and in September 1955 founded the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. He recruited “the most creative team in the world for developing and producing transistors,” which included Gordon Moore, Jean Hoerni and Robert Noyce.
In 1949, Professor Grant Gale at Grinnell College showed his 18 physics students two of the very first transistors ever made from Bell Labs. Noyce was one of them and he was immediately hooked to the transistor. When he joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Ph.D., he knew more about transistors than most of his professors.
Soon afterwards, Noyce joined Philco Corporation which was not ready to invest money into the futuristic research Noyce had in mind. In 1956, he left Philco to join Shockley. The way he joined was a classic example of his confidence. He contacted Shockley by telephone a few times and put himself and his wife on a night flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco. They arrived in Palo Alto at 6 am, and by noon Noyce had signed a contract to buy a house. Then he met Shockley and got his job, in that order.
But by December 1956 their egos clashed and most of that ‘most creative team’ got disenchanted with Shockley’s management style. In the summer of 1957 Moore, Hoerni, Jay Last and four other engineers wanted to look for greener pastures by starting their own company. But they needed a leader and an administrator. So they turned to Noyce. He was 29 years old. “With his strong face, his athlete’s build and the Gary Cooper manner, Bob Noyce projected what psychologists call the halo effect. People with the halo effect seem to know exactly what they are doing and, moreover, make you want to admire them for it. They make you see the halos over their heads.” He agreed to join them but with his white lab coat and goggles on and his research in. They founded Fairchild Semiconductor.
Jay Last said in an interview much later, “There were eight of us. We all had different skills but in the group we had all the necessary skills and it was a completely cooperative effort.” Shockley called them ‘Traitorous Eight.’
Everyone knows that the first electronic numerical integrator and computer known as ENIAC was a monster measuring 30 metres long and 3 metres high, which boasted use of 18,000 vacuum tubes. But the government wanted smaller computers to facilitate automatic on-board guidance in rockets. Transistors did simplify the system and could cut down the size. But then even a radio with seven or eight transistors looked like a map of a small city and had to be hand wired in a cumbersome, laborious process. Sizes were getting reduced and smaller devices were being produced. ‘Miniature’ was no longer the word and the new buzz word was ‘micro-miniature.’
Fairchild’s founders understood that it is the survival of the micros. Noyce and Moore theorised an idea of combining transistors in a solid block of silicon. Transistors, insulators, rectifiers, resistors, capacitors and all of them would have to be carved, etched and built on a wafer of silicon or, in other words, an entire circuit to be fabricated on a little chip.
However, in the late 1958, Kurt Lehovec, at the Sprague Electric Company, found a simple solution to the isolation problem. He was paid only one dollar for this invention by the management of Sprague as he was their employee. That is the interest shown by Sprague for an invention, a method still used for IC manufacture. To quote Moore again, “Yeah, it’s very much the same technology today.”
In an article entitled ‘Microelectronics,’ published in ‘Scientific American,’ Robert Noyce wrote, “The integrated circuit, as we conceived and developed it at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1959, accomplishes the separation and interconnection of transistors and other circuit elements electrically rather than physically. The separation is accomplished by introducing p-n diodes or rectifiers, which allow current to flow in only one direction. The technique was patented by Kurt Lehovec at the Sprague Electric Company.”
Noyce came up with a workable solution unaware that Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments had already succeeded, albeit with germanium. Silently working behind was Jean Hoerni, one of Fairchild’s original founders, when he developed the ‘planar’ process. By using the planar process, each layer could now be isolated electrically. No need to cut the layers and join them where required as was done in the past. By mid 1959, Noyce created an IC made of silicon, using the cutting-edge insulating process developed by Jean Hoerni.
Gordon Moore confided in an interview, “In fact, when I look at the development of the integrated circuit, I always measure it from the first planar transistor rather than from the first integrated circuit.”
Fairchild Semiconductor filed a patent for a semiconductor IC based on the planar process on July 30, 1959. But Texas Instruments had filed a comparable patent with Kilby’s IC some time before. After a decade-long legal battle, the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals sustained Noyce’s claims on interconnection techniques but gave Kilby and Texas Instruments credit for the first working IC.
Earlier, a German engineer Werner Jacobi (of Siemens AG) had filed a patent for an IC-like device. It was a five-transistor amplifier designed to produce cheap hearing aids. Commercial use of his patent was not reported.
In a historical coincidence, Noyce and Kilby invented the IC without knowing each other and about the same time. Noyce’s silicon IC is more efficient, more practical and the most common form now. NASA used Noyce’s ICs for the first computers in the spacecraft of the Gemini programme.
By 1968, ‘the most creative team’ at Fairchild decided to start its own company. With initial capital from Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist, NM Electronics (NM standing for Noyce Moore) was incorporated on July 18, 1968 for developing large-scale ICs. Andrew Grove was roped in who would remain with them as president and CEO into the 1990s. The company’s name was soon changed to Intel, taken from the first syllables of integrated electronics.’
Just in a few months, Intel produced the 3101, a high-speed random access memory (RAM) chip. Those were the days when semiconductor memories were much more expensive than standard magnetic core memories. Intel felt that the future was in semiconductor memories which would soon replace magnetic cores.
Evolution of microprocessor
In a dramatic turn of events, in November 1971, Intel presented the 4004 to the public as “a new era of integrated electronics …. a micro-programmable computer on a chip.” The dawn of the microprocessor! Gordon Moore called it, “one of the most revolutionary products in the history of mankind.”
The invention of the microprocessor is a turning point in Intel’s history and the industrial world. Interestingly, the development of 4004, the world’s first microprocessor, was an offshoot of a necessity. Noyce quipped, “In a small town, when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.” The glory is now with Ted Hoff.
Ted Hoff recalled in an interview, “We were contacted by a Japanese calculator company whose calculators came out under the name Busicom. They said that they would like to have us build a family of chips for a whole series of different calculator models, models that would vary in type of display, whether they had a printer or not, the amount of memory that they had and so on.
While on the subject, let us digress and go back to Kilby once again. Patrick E. Haggerty, then TI chairman, challenged Kilby to design a calculator that could fit in a coat’s pocket—equal or better than the bulky electro-mechanical desktop models available those days. Just to give you an idea, a calculator released just a year earlier weighed 55 pounds and cost $2500. The result is the handheld calculator, of which Kilby is a co-inventor. He held about 60 patents including one for a thermal printer.
Now back to Ted Hoff; Busicomp contracted Intel to design cost-effective chips for a series of calculators. The project was assigned to Ted Hoff who did not like the idea which required 12 custom chips “because there was a lot of random logic and many interconnections between different chips.”
In the words of Ted Hoff, “It seemed to me we could simplify the control logic, reduce the number of transistors and cut the overall cost….. Together Stan Mazor and I—Stan joined at the beginning of September—created an outline of what we were talking about and our marketing department proposed our alternate approach to the calculator company in the middle of September.”
Hoff said, “Our initial goal was never to make a microprocessor, only to solve this particular customer’s problem, this calculator design problem. But there were several aspects of the design that became more evident as it was pursued. One was, being more general-purpose and faster than the original design, we figured it might be useful for a broader range of applications than just the calculator family.”
He also said, “Dr Federico Faggin was hired around in April of 1970 and given the responsibility for chip circuit design and layout, to turn this architecture into a physical transistor layout. He developed a number of techniques to take advantage of Intel’s new silicon gate metal oxide silicon (MOS) process and even found ways to improve performance using techniques that others felt impossible to do with silicon gate. He had working parts by around January of 1971.”
The result was the 4004 microprocessor, a 4-bit chip containing 2300 MOS transistors, and as powerful as the ENIAC. But the sidelight is that only after delivering the chip to Busicomp, Intel realised the market potential of the chip. Intel had to re-negotiate with Busicomp and regain the exclusive rights. We would have missed the latest Intel Core i7 which contains 995 million transistors.
So let us salute the pioneers! Kilby wrote in the autobiography submitted to Nobel committee, “Whether the research is applied or basic, we all ‘stand upon the shoulders of giants,’ as Isaac Newton said. I’m grateful to the innovative thinkers who came before me, and I admire the innovators who have followed.”
Kilby said, “From 1978 to 1984, I spent much of my time as a distinguished professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University.” And his words for the honour, “The ‘distinguished’ part is in the eye of the beholder, and I really didn’t do much ‘professing’.”
Was he unhappy at his late selection to the Nobel? “It’s not too late—at least I’m still alive. You have to live long enough to receive the Prize,” he said. Noyce could not live long enough.
But Noyce charted an American revolution by the way he managed the two companies. “The people that are supervising it (a project) are more dependent on their ability to judge people than they are dependent on their ability to judge the work that is going on,” Noyce said in 1965. He avoided Shockley’s mistakes. He established a very casual and open working environment, where his brilliant young employees enjoyed working and worked with responsibility.
During one of the last interviews, he was asked what he would do if he becomes the ‘emperor’ of the United States. He answered that he would, amongst other things, “make sure we are preparing our next generation to flourish in a high-tech age. And that means education of the lowest and the poorest, as well as at the graduate school level.”
The author has written six science books published by Pustak Mahal, New Delhi and an engineering book by Industrial Press, New York. Radio Talker and RCFA specialist, he is presently the head of technical training with Coromandel International Ltd for their group of companies.