How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It may surprise you that the microchip that we all know and love today was far from an obvious idea. Some of the paths that were being explored back then to cram more components into a smaller area seem odd now. But who hasn’t experienced hindsight of that sort, even on our own bench tops.

Let’s start the story of the microchip like any good engineering challenge should be started, by diving into the problem that existed at the time with the skyrocketing complexity of computing machines.

The Problem: Tyranny Of Numbers

The ENIAC computer contained about 20,000 vacuum tubes and around 90,000 other components, all wired together using 5,000,000 500,000 hand-soldered joints ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while 5,000,000 is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.). By 1956, one tube would burn out every two days and it would take 15 minutes to find it. All that meant that the longest continuous run time was just short of five days, a far cry from today’s computers which remain on for their lifetime.

Harwell CADET computer
Harwell CADET computer

The germanium transistor, the successor to the troublesome vacuum tube, was invented in the late 1940s, followed in 1955 by the silicon transistor. By 1955 the first all transistor computer, the Harwell CADET, was released. However, it used only a modest 324 point-contact transistors. Nonetheless, the switch from vacuum tubes to transistors for computers had begun and the low power requirement and low heat of the new transistor meant that computers could be made more capable and complex.

To minimize complexity, the hardware was broken up into modules. Several modules might work together to function as an adder. However, each module was a circuit board that had to be hand-soldered. This made them prone to failure. Plus, these modules had to be wired together with masses of cables along with their connections, another source of failure.

These problems caused by the quantity and complexity, as well as the resulting size and weight of the computer, were known as the tyranny of numbers, and were seen as an impedance to advancing to more complex circuits.

However, where there’s a problem, there’s usually a solution. As you’ll see, some went nowhere and some succeeded beyond the engineer’s wildest imagination.

Nowhere Solutions

One solution to the high failure rate was to add redundancy to circuits. For example, a radio would have an extra circuit built in. But this just made the overall circuit larger when size was already an issue.

Project Tinkertoy - Hydrophone
Project Tinkertoy – Hydrophone

The US Army favored a solution involving Micro-Modules, wherein each electronic component would exist on a small ceramic square which could then be connected to other such squares much like snapping together blocks of LEGO. The US Navy had a similar solution in Project Tinkertoy.

Some solutions actually involved making integrated circuits, but went nowhere. In Germany, in 1949, Werner Jacobi of Siemens AG filed a patent for something very much like an IC, consisting of five transistors on a common substrate as a three-stage amplifier for a small and cheap hearing aid, but it didn’t result in any commercial use. Similarly, Geoffrey Drummer of the Royal Radar Establishment in Britain came up with the idea for an integrated circuit in 1952, but the UK military couldn’t envisage a use for it and UK industry were unwilling to invest in it.

Jack Kilby’s Solution While At Texas Instruments

The integrated circuit that did lead to something was Jack Kilby’s at Texas Instruments (TI). Jack had recently joined TI and was unhappily working on the US Army’s Micro-Modules solution — unhappily because he was an engineer who enjoyed solutions that solved the right problem. He saw the tyranny of numbers problem as a problem of having too many components. Micro-Modules didn’t reduce the number of components.

First integrated circuit built on a glass slide
First integrated circuit. Photo courtesy of Texas Instruments

TI had invested a lot of money in working with semiconductors for their transistors, learning how to purify them and how to add impurities to dope them. So he wondered if a solution could be found using semiconductors. He figured you could make resistors and capacitors. And once he’d concluded that, he hit on his idea: make all of the circuit out of one material in one monolithic block. The result is condensing the problem into just one single component.

And so on July 24, 1958, he did what any good engineer would, he wrote his monolithic idea in his notebook. When he showed his notes to Willis Adcock, who’d recruited him to TI, he got permission to try making a resistor and a capacitor, which he did. That got him permission to make a full circuit. It was decided that he’d make a phase-shift oscillator circuit, a circuit containing resistors, capacitors, and a transistor that work together to output a sine wave.

By September 12, 1958 he was ready to demo it. The components were made from a single germanium substrate 7/16 inches long and 1/16 of an inch wide, glued to a glass slide to keep it flat. Wires connected the components together. A group of executives gathered around him and his tiny device in a lab. He adjusted an oscilloscope, pushed a switch, and a perfect green sine wave snaked continuously across the scope’s screen. A good solution to the tyranny of numbers had been found.

Robert Noyce’s Solution While At Fairchild

Robert Noyce in 1959
“Robert Noyce in 1959” by Intel Free Press CC BY-SA 2.0

Robert Noyce was co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor when he came up with his solution. But unlike Kilby, Noyce didn’t solve it by attacking the problem directly. He’d thought a lot about the problem but hadn’t gotten anywhere.

Then, in 1958 Jean Hoerni, also at Fairchild, came up with the planar process, a way of protecting transistors on silicon wafers by covering them with a layer of silicon oxide. Fairchild’s patent lawyer decided he wanted to go broad with the patent for the process and asked Noyce to come up with other uses. And this he did, over a number of days, each time going over his ideas on a blackboard with fellow co-founder, Gordon Moore.

First Noyce thought about how thin wires could be poked down through the silicon oxide layer to connect to the transistors, the layer keeping the wires in place. Then he thought, why use wires at all. Why not print lines of copper wires right on the oxide layer? But then he took it even further and asked why not connect transistors together using these printed lines of copper? And then finally he asked himself, why stop at transistors. Why not make resistors and capacitors too and build an entire integrated circuit?

From that stream of ideas he’d come up with a solution to the tyranny of numbers. By January 23, 1959, his idea for the integrated circuit filled four pages of his notebook.

And so Jack Kilby at TI and Robert Noyce at Fairchild had independently invented the integrated circuit.

Patent Problems

As you’d expect, with two independent inventors, patent fights ensued.

Kilby and others at TI had made many improvements for putting components on a common substrate but they hadn’t solved the problem of connecting them together. They still used thin gold wires. When it came time for making a drawing for the patent, all they had to go on was a version with gold wires “flying” through the air, connecting the components. But just in case, they added a paragraph to the patent about the possibility of evaporating on a silicon oxide layer and that

“Electrically conducting material such as gold may then be laid down
on the insulating material to make the necessary electrical circuit

Flying wires drawing from US patent 3,138,743
Flying wires drawing from US patent 3,138,743

Fairchild filed a few months after TI but their patent made it through the system sooner, on April 26, 1961. And of course, a battle ensued. By November 1969 the ruling was decided based on wording in TI’s patent, specifically on the words “laid down” with respect to how the gold was applied to the insulating material. It was argued that “laid down” had no clear meaning. In Fairchild’s patent they’d used the words “adherent to” instead. It was argued that between the flying wires in TI’s patent drawing, and the laying down of the wires on the oxide layer, no one could build an integrated circuit based on TI’s patent. The ruling came down in Fairchild’s favour.

But the dates in their respective notebooks showed that Kilby came up with the idea first. The character of the two men was such that they credited each other anyway.

NASA And The Military’s Crucial Funding

Flatpack ICs used in the Apollo guidance computer
Flatpack ICs used in the Apollo guidance computer

When Fairchild and TI started releasing IC products in 1961, an IC containing a few transistors, diodes and resistors cost $120. And so there was no rush to buy them. However, better production techniques that would lower prices couldn’t be developed without higher sales.

It was in part the space race that saved the day. There was a need for a guidance and navigation system which included a computer that could rapidly guide a rocket through different atmospheres and to a precise landing on the moon. And of course that computer had to be lightweight. For that, the government was willing to bear the high price.

As already pointed out, the US military had also been working on the tyranny of numbers problem with their Micro-Modules and Tinkertoy projects, but with little success. Defense systems, such as the Minuteman Missile, required compact and lightweight circuits. And of course the military’s pockets were also deep enough to pay the high price. So the fledgling integrated circuits industry had the military as a second customer.

And so NASA and the military provided the necessary sales such that by 1971, the average price for a chip was $1.27. They also proved that the product worked.

New Markets Take Over

UNIVAC 1100/80
UNIVAC 1100/80

Slowly ICs started finding uses. In 1964, the UNIVAC 1108 computer’s integrated control register stack was implemented using ICs but it wasn’t until the UNIVAC 1110, introduced in 1972, that much of the discrete logic was replaced with TTL ICs. The Burroughs 6500 in 1969 used hybrid ICs, combining discrete transistors and integrated circuits on a single substrate.

Noyce and Moore founded Intel in 1968 where they pursued memory chips. Their 1 KB memory chips had small sales in the first year but by 1973, with the 4 KB chips, sales had reached $60 million.

Intel also released the first microprocessor chip, the 4004, in 1971. Meanwhile, the Japanese released the first pocket calculator using ICs in 1970. The Canon Pocketronic calculator released in 1971 was based on the a TI project codenamed Cal Tech that Kilby had worked on in the 1960s. Integrated circuits had taken off.

But where will integrated circuits go next? Our own [Brian Benchoff] walks us through 3D integrated circuits, past, present and future.

Sources for this Article

Links to sources have been spread throughout this article, but the article’s heart drew from the very enjoyable book The Chip, by T.R. Reid. It carries you on a tale from Thomas Edison’s explorations in thermionic emissions to the awarding of the Nobel prize in Physics to Jack Kilby on December 10, 2000. Beware, the book is hard to put down at times.

43 thoughts on “How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be

    1. Alien? What, it was from a time ship from the 29th century. Captain Braxton set off to destroy a known temporally challenged Captain Janeway and it lead to the semiconductor revolution.

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. I graduated from high school in 1973 and went to college for “electronic engineering.” It was such an exciting time to see more and more ICs come out over the next years, and be so inexpensive that even I could buy some and experiment. (7400 series – I still have the original TI data books.) I wish society would put up statues of scientists and engineers instead of honoring politicians of any stripe. These are true heroes who have saved or improved literally the lives of every human on earth. Retelling these stories is truly inspiring – maybe there is hope…

    1. Double-plus when attorneys are involved.

      “Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.” – MacBeth (II, 3).

  2. “The character of the two men was such that they credited each other anyway.”
    Alas, I can’t see this being allowed in the modern world (despite what engineers would like) due to NDAs, etc, and managers with hearts of MBAs rather than any sort of idealism of engineering goals.

      1. Yes there was an intermediate period. I had an op-amp that was the size of a small box of matches. There was nearly seventies TouchTone encoder that was a hybrid, followed soon after with an outright integrated circuit as we know them.

        The op-amp makes sense, they were modularized in the days of tube, and while the IC op-amp came in the early sixties, it was the early days of ICs. I’m not sure why the encoder came as a hybrid first, but maybe nobody was sure of demand.

        I’ve seen hybrid ICs in more recent equipment, they had a substrate so they weren’t merely “modules”. A DAA for interfacing to a telephone line surfaced here recently, I think some of those count more as hybrids than modules, but since they needed a transformer, that’s probably why they were hybrids rather than ICs.


  3. The Friden (later known as Singer, then ICL) System Ten (mini) computer was 74xx TTL logic and core memory, was released in 1969-1970. Their 74xx ICs were custom marked with their own part numbers and there was a cross reference list to standard 74xx logic.
    This predates the Univac 1110 referred to above. I am sure there were others too.

    1. There may well have been others too. I couldn’t find which of them was first so I used UNIVAC as an example. I hadn’t encountered the Friden though. Thanks for that.

    1. If I had to put on a prognosticating hat (fair warning: they’re usually pointy), I’d say that the biggest problem with manufacturing is that we’ve optimized for scale at the expense of the ease of one-off or prototyping. As the prices for CNC milling and additive manufacturing systems drop, that’s starting to see some balance, but we’re not to the point yet where a manufacturing line of anything can include part creation steps that don’t involve pre-tooled things like molds and the like.

  4. I was a test engineer at Autonetics in support of the Minuteman missile guidance computer in the early 60’s. The first one was all discrete and about the size of a trash barrel. It was replaced by one with IC’s and was the size of a large shoe box. The tiny surface mount flat pack IC’s were soldered on small multi-layer boards. We were told that each board was worth as much as a Cadillac.

    1. Small things that are that valuable scare me. I can barely be trusted with scissors. Handling car-money in a shoebox form factor might actually kill me.

      It must have been a hell of a thing to watch the tech miniaturize.

  5. I agree, there are some statues in museums and really more can not be bad. Seems government which has more people that were on the dating game and actors doing the show and tell have along with their warriors the most in certain places. Most likely this can change with Corporations donating to create park Art that is more scientific related like Government does. Maybe there is a looks like thing going on too where looks are the primary primitive sensory perception and the objects and subject are more worth demonstrating to inspire.

    I also tend to find a root cause to be something brain damaging that kept infesting our society from around the turn of the 20th century where the Harrison Act and the Pure Food and Drug (and Cosmetic) Acts cleaned up the U.S. society until the end of WWII when we took on all the DI-X and alcoholic junkies that were insidious mass murders acting all cute sweet and innocent luring whatever U.S. or Allies they could find to seduce, coerce, manipulate, intimidate, bribe and extort to become like them to suicidal death (proxy warriors maybe not rehabilitated?) or just flat out murder like they did with our airmen. I think Vatican most corrupt descent style rewriting the books and terminology to be more mafia like also is causation. Seems to coincide with U.S. Presidencies and change over of people in official roles with new fairy tale agencies with the worst metrics that can’t even pass in a corporate let alone lean sigma culture.

    I say hope is meaningless without faith and remind yourself and everyone to have faith.. not only hope. Share also with those that are safer to learn and unlike the pedophile groomers groom horrifically… we have to groom the future validly without the sexual deviant, sodomy, narcotics, dangerous drugs, larceny and conspiring against others rights acts when the victims are not acting in illegal ways victimizing others. I’m confident the past generations were more groomed with the Ten Commandments also and more Christ like in their youth (or at least something like that behavior and thought conscious not to harm or bother others) and that has changed and is noticed in say all the new religion cult images in the U.S. you can use on a veterans grave marker. How can society have no way Pro Life and Pro Truth movements? That’s like a suicide movement of liars. Jack Kevorkian, population control invalid theorists that do not consider mass and energy balances along with mature adult roles and responsibilities as well pluralist liberals propaganda doesn’t help. However, we are able to make our own choices and show others why better ways and means are more long term valuable.

    This is a great read and haven’t read up on Intel’s history so much and will look into the The Chip as i just requested via inter-library loan.

      1. I’ve personally (or maybe read though I forget) thought this was because of the grave concern and imminent threat that the long poisonous and murderous history of not only the Roman Catholic Ecclesiastical Provinces had up and to that point in recorded time where even the slightest regression or loss of moral, social and ethical standards can lead society back to a cannibalistic time in history that is better not recorded in the history books. I’m sure Martin Luther and the Sola Fide (faith alone in Christ per say John 14:6, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, John 3:14-16, et. al. or for the laymen basically pro-life and pro-truth selflessly by the standard book(s) of law literally) Doctrine influence as well as Protestant influence of the Hanoverian era or House of Hanover. Scary the lack of equity some find in even what many perceive as a liability. Granted, there are pan troglodyte of the least conscious having no compassion to or for others that look human seems on some days. Our duty to society is to assure those are identified and if not corrected or prevented from their ways and means or utilized in a controlled monitored and technical and managerial change control reviewed manner… they are quarantined from society if not put to death if they are in imminent threat to another person’s survival that is attempting to act legally or vulnerable.

      1. For the price… amazing what you can get on the IC’s now days too when you start reading up on categories and specifications.

        The latest application specific chips (ASIC’s) and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA’s) are making me want to learn a Hardware Description Language (HDL); VHDL and/or Verilog.

        I’m thinking based on the latest “Nuts and Volts” article part 1 on FPGA’s that Verilog is more common in the U.S.

  6. Sorry I’m late to the party.

    If this is true: “Meanwhile, the Japanese released the first pocket calculator using ICs in 1970. The Canon Pocketronic calculator released in 1971 …” then who made the digital calculator (only 4 arithmetic functions, no memory, with ruby-red LED display digits) that I saw in the Ohio State University bookstore in June of 1969? Maybe it didn’t use ICs? It was pocket size, not a desktop model, as I recall.

    A family friend had given my father $40 to buy me “the best slide rule money could buy” as a graduation gift. After some time drooling over the $400 dollar calculator, we walked out with a K&E log-log decitrig slide rule, a good leather case, a magnifier and more than $5 in change. I still have the slide rule.

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