Comms chips

Valley Wonk: The Quiet Jack Kilby

This week, an era passed in electronics, with the death of Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit. Just as in jazz, where past artists' innovations are taken for granted, it takes the death of a pioneer to generate a wave of nostalgia that illuminates the importance of earlier discoveries.

And just as it's important to catch Sam Rivers or Cecil Taylor before they leave us, I'm thankful that I got to spend an hour with Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit, back in 1998. Kilby, who died on Monday at 81 after suffering from cancer, held more than 60 patents, but his fame is staked on the 1958 patent of the monolithic integrated circuit – the chip, essentially. From that invention sprung the modern electronics industry.

In 1998 I was working at EE Times, and they had flown me to Texas to meet up with Dave Lammers, a veteran chip reporter, the two of us having been assigned to visit Texas Instruments for a morning chat with Kilby. I was warned that Kilby wasn't particularly gabby and that it might be tough to get material out of him. He was also tall – possibly even taller than Dave, who outspans me by a foot. I was braced for a long – and low – hour.

But Kilby greeted us warmly, and he patiently sat through the same questions he'd been asked for decades, even some lame J-school stuff about how it "felt" to have kick-started an industry that now pervades the world. Maybe we just caught him on a good day, but he was downright talkative at times; it's just that he has that engineer gene that makes lab work a joy and conversation a chore.

He did deliver some rote answers, particularly concerning the flap over who "invented" the IC. Robert Noyce, a founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, had a patent in the works when Kilby's was granted, and Fairchild's kicking and screaming eventually led to a compromise where both men got credit in industry parlance. (Kilby alone got recognized by the 2000 Nobel Prize committee for the invention, but that's probably because Noyce had died in 1990.) Asked about the controversy, Kilby heaped praise on Noyce and said the semiconductor revolution came from the work of thousands, not from one patent. Very Kilby-like.

Still, I got the feeling Kilby had a stronger ego than he let on, that maybe his Kansas upbringing kept him from brandishing the pride he felt in his accomplishments. He did turn out to be opinionated and not at all shy, and we got him going on a couple of topics – why the semiconductor's triumph is more economics than technology (the chip's key power isn't its size, but its cheapness) and why a lack of software innovation was causing a lull in PC demand.

Kilby never attained Noyce's celebrity level. But that could be because in Silicon Valley, Noyce is part of the folklore. Noyce also had more of a strong personal presence and a more visible role in the industry.

In contrast, Kilby wasn't the founder of the company where he worked, TI, and he didn't seek the spotlight. He ascended the executive ranks but devoted his later life to research, even after officially retiring from TI in 1983. He told us he was even living in the same house he'd bought upon joining the company, more than 40 years ago. That seems characteristic of him, but some of us took it as a sign that Kilby, unlike Noyce, hadn't been amply rewarded for his accomplishments.

I doubt he had many complaints, though. From the 70s on, Kilby got to live what I like to think was a dream job for an engineer, with carte blanche to research and invent in areas of his choosing – solar cells, for example. His reward was freedom.

Thirty or 40 years from now, some other young reporter might tell a similar tale about the time they got to meet an elderly Tim Berners-Lee or Marc Andreessen and asked one of them how he invented the World Wide Web or commercialized the Web browser. Sorry, kids, but that's not the same. The folks working today on the Next New Thing seem to be highly conscious of carving out some "place in history" – or even a nice slice of an IPO – with the perks. Kilby was just an engineer, with his head down. Engineers in 1958 knew the IC would change electronics, but they couldn't have foreseen its place in toasters, pens, and sneakers. That accidental triggering of history makes a story like Jack Kilby's special.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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