In a world built on the microchip, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary the idea for an integrated circuit was when it debuted. First proposed by Geoffrey W.A. Dummer in a research paper published on May 7, 1952, the electronic breakthrough has dramatically shifted the human experience. What was once viewed as simply a method for mass producing semiconductors is now used in everything from greeting cards to a child’s toy.
Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist, created the first rudimentary electrical circuit in 1800 using a basic salt solution connected with a pair of metal strips. The chemical composition of the different components created the first modern battery, paving the way for German scientist Georg Ohm to experiment with the conductive properties of different substances. By playing with a variety of materials, Ohm learned how to control current by manipulating resistance in a circuit.
Over time, the components which affected electrical movement — transistors, resistors, capacitors, diodes — had become more sophisticated. By connecting these parts in complex sequences, researchers developed stronger and more efficient means for managing higher voltages while minimizing the amount of heat produced. The proper combination of transistors (designed to start, stop or amplify flow) with resistors (built to slow it) would ensure a capacitor worked on cue — say, to power the flash on a modern smartphone camera.
At Bell Labs in mid-December 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain discovered the ability for transistors to multiply the power generated by conductive substances — in this case, two gold wires — the seeds were planted for a major advance in computing. The result, known as a “bipolar point-contact” transistor, amounted to a massive shift in the capacity of semiconductors, one that later resulted in Bardeen and Brattain sharing the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, British electrical engineer Dummer was working for the Telecommunications Research Establishment, located at Malvern in western England. Experimenting as part of a talented team of physicists and engineers, he helped to create circuits which were more resistant to the challenges of wet weather along British coastlines in order to help radar installations stay online regardless of the conditions. After working on a variety of cutting edge materials, Dummer became convinced that the ability to etch pathways on semiconductors could lead to a technological leap.
On May 7, 1952, during a session at the United States Electronic Components Symposium, Dummer told the crowd “it now seems possible to envisage electronic equipment in a solid block with no connecting wires.” He went on to describe a concept by which the different components that made up a circuit could somehow be sandwiched together by cutting links between layers — from a transistor to a resistor through an insulator, for example. Experts would later point to the discussion as the first mention of the integrated circuit and, thus, the birth of modern computing.
The gap between conception and execution, however, would be a long one. Dummer tried unsuccessfully to construct a circuit based on the idea in 1956. Managing the vast amount of connections required to run a computer without spreading the distance between components too far proved challenging. This “tyranny of numbers” was finally conquered by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments during the summer of 1958. His revolutionary idea, combining all of the components on a single block of semiconductor material with a metal overlay to connect them, was shown to be effective in tests that September.
Compared to what is used today, Kilby’s design was rather inefficient. Six months later, physicist Robert Noyce created a different layout in his office at Fairchild Semiconductor. By using silicon as the semiconductor instead of the then-common germanium and laying a strip of metal on top, then pulling some of it away to form the wires, Noyce developed an inexpensive method for producing the chips. The advances in size and cost opened new doors for the computing industry, but the technology was slow to catch on.
A decade later, Noyce and several others founded a new organization to focus efforts on making the integrated circuit more accessible and, therefore, drive adoption in a variety of businesses. Further research by physicist Federico Faggin revealed the fact self-aligned gates made by overlapping the connectors of a transistor could generate improved processing speeds. Snapped up by Noyce to lead the effort at his new company, Intel, Faggin eventually led the team that announced production of the 4004 microprocessor in 1971. Called a “central processing unit” by the engineers at Intel, the team had made the computer as it is seen today possible.
In the 40-plus years since the debut of the Intel 4004, the integrated circuit has become ubiquitous. The concept proposed by Dummer has, to some, only begun to affect the way humans live and work. Thanks to the fact similar-sized chips manufactured today have 125 million more transistors than those invented by Kilby and Noyce, a future in which everything from cars to microscopic medical devices are guided by the complex calculations of advanced microchips is a likelihood instead of a mere possibility.
As a key component of the leadership group at Intel, Noyce would go on to hold 16 patents and earn the nickname “Mayor of Silicon Valley” — due in no small part to the fact he named the region itself. Kilby managed to do a little better, receiving the National Medal of Science in 1970 and winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000.
Also On This Day:
1429 – Joan of Arc pulls an arrow from her shoulder and leads the final charge at the Siege of Orlean, gaining a key French victory in the Hundred Years’ War.
1711 – Scottish philosopher David Hume is born in Edinburgh.
1718 – The city of New Orleans is founded by Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville.
1915 – The RMS Lusitania is Sunk by German Submarine U-20.
1960 – Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announces Francis Gary Powers, pilot of an American U-2 spy plane, has been captured.