Fabless: September 2008 Archives

Nominally, today is a 50th anniversary for the integrated circuit (IC). But it's a troublesome anniversary, which is why the celebration is a bit muted. I could argue that any one of three or four dates could serve as the true beginning of the IC industry.

On September 12, 1958, Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby demonstrated to colleagues a tiny chip that carried more than one transistor. Some six months later, TI filed its first patent on IC manufacturing, making the first move in an acrimonious war over who really invented the IC. Filing in February 1959, TI easily beat the application from Fairchild Semiconductor's Bob Noyce, which was filed in July 1959. Although Noyce's application was published first, TI argued it had the prior art and won, only to lose ten years later.

Here's the problem: Noyce had the basis for the technology that is used today. Kilby used wires to connect the transistors together. Noyce realised he could get layers of silicon deposited on the surface of the chip to do the same job. The reality is that, if Kilby's technique was used today, we would still regard the IBM System/360 as the ultimate computer. Noyce's realisation made possible billion-transistor chips. However, the discovery that would usher in that kind of integration had to wait for almost ten years after the initial inventions.