The Chip That Changed the World

Andy Kessler:

Sixty years. But how much longer? In 1958 Jack St. Clair Kilby —from Great Bend, Kan.—created one of the greatest inventions, a great bend, in the history of mankind. Kilby recently had started at Texas Instruments as an electrical engineer. Most everyone left on a mandated summer break, but he stayed in the lab and worked on combining a transistor, capacitor and three resistors on a single piece of germanium. On Sept. 12, he showed his boss his integrated circuit. At a half-inch long and not very wide, it had ugly wires sticking out, resembling an upside-down cockroach glued to a glass slide.

In January 1959 Bob Noyce, another Midwesterner, was keeping busy at Fairchild Semiconductor in Palo Alto, Calif. He deployed a photographic printing technique—the planar process, which uses glass as insulation—to deposit aluminum wires above silicon transistors. Without the messy cockroach-leg wires, the integrated circuit, or chip, became manufacturable.

In March 1960, TI introduced the Type 502 Flip Flop—basically one bit of memory for $450. A few weeks later, Fairchild announced its own. The U.S. Air Force used them in 1961. So did new computer companies and even NASA in its Apollo rockets. One bit turned into four, then 16, then 64. This started the shrink, integrate, shrink, integrate, rinse, repeat motion that’s still going strong today. This relentless cost decline creates new markets out of nothing.