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JACK KILBY | 1923-2005

Inventor Transformed the World in a Tiny Way

June 22, 2005|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

Jack Kilby, the soft-spoken, 6-foot-6 engineer whose invention of the integrated circuit won him the Nobel Prize and launched the digital revolution, died Monday. He was 81.

Kilby died of cancer at his home in Dallas, according to Texas Instruments, where he worked for most of his career.

Kilby's research for Texas Instruments in 1958 led to the computer chip, which spawned a trillion-dollar global industry and transformed the way people live and work. His breakthrough shrank tons of complex circuitry to the size of a fingernail and enabled the development of personal computers, automated sprinklers, mobile phones and microwave ovens.

"In my opinion, there are only a handful of people whose works have truly transformed the world and the way we live in it -- Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Jack Kilby," said Texas Instruments Inc. Chairman Tom Engibous. "If there was ever a seminal invention that transformed not only our industry but our world, it was Jack's invention of the first integrated circuit."

Over a career that began with the birth of the transistor in 1947, Kilby earned more than 60 patents -- he also invented the hand-held calculator -- and was honored as one of the seminal inventors of the 20th century. In addition to the Nobel Prize in physics in 2000, Kilby won the National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Despite the accolades, Kilby was a humble man who lived simply and was known as the "gentle giant" at Texas Instruments.

"Luck is an important factor," he told the Dallas Morning News in 1989. "There's a good deal of chance that I ended up at [Texas Instruments], which was a receptive place for my ideas. I'm sure it was chance that this idea occurred to me and not someone else."

The innovation came in August 1958, when Kilby was working alone at a Texas Instruments lab in Dallas. Most of the rest of the company was on vacation, but Kilby lacked the seniority to take time off. Instead, he toiled on borrowed equipment and, by September, developed a working prototype.

"It was kind of a string-and-chewing gum gadget that just showed you could use semiconductors to make all the bits and pieces," Gordon Moore, co-founder of chip giant Intel Corp., told Associated Press. Intel's other founder, Robert N. Noyce, is credited with developing the manufacturing process that made the wide-scale production of integrated circuits economical.

"Kilby may have built the first one," Moore said. "Noyce's approach was how to do it on a practical basis."

Kilby and Noyce bickered for years over each other's claim to have invented the integrated circuit. Ultimately, the two agreed to share credit. In 1995, Kilby was awarded the Robert N. Noyce Award, the Semiconductor Industry Assn.'s highest honor. And when Kilby won the Nobel Prize, he invited Moore to the ceremony as a gesture to the contribution of Noyce, who died in 1990. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Including Noyce in the honor was classic Kilby, said those who knew him.

Unlike Noyce and Moore, Kilby never shared in the phenomenal wealth created by the microchip. But, he told the Morning News, "I don't feel mistreated in any way. It's not possible for one person to create a success like the integrated circuit. Many people are involved in that. Today, tens of thousands of people are still contributing to it."

After being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame -- which includes Edison and Alexander Graham Bell -- Kilby delivered a characteristically modest acceptance speech: "Thank you," he said before sitting down.

Jack St. Clair Kilby was born in Jefferson City, Mo., on Nov. 8, 1923, and grew up in Great Bend, Kan.

His father ran a small power company with customers scattered across rural western Kansas. When Kilby was in high school, a severe ice storm took down telephone and power lines, and his father worked with amateur radio operators to communicate with his customers.

That sparked Kilby's lifelong fascination with electronics and helped him decide to become an engineer.

After failing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admission test by three points, Kilby attended the University of Illinois -- interrupted by serving in the Army in World War II -- and graduated in 1947 with a degree in electrical engineering. In 1950, he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

In his first job at a Milwaukee circuit designer called Centralab, Kilby began working with transistors, which were invented in 1947 by engineers at AT&T. While designing circuits, Kilby grew intrigued by the problem of making complex devices small.

Texas Instruments offered him the opportunity to find a solution, so Kilby moved his family to Texas, where he lived until his death. Within weeks of arriving, Kilby had developed the integrated circuit.

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