Monday, August 10, 2009 8/10/09 - Chips and Missiles

In today's excerpt - the microchip was invented and then first manufactured in 1959, but it required the high demand of the missile and space programs to make it economical enough to usher in the era of mass computing:

"The microchip was invented not by a vast team of physicists but by one man working alone, a self- described tinkerer - not even a physicist, but an engineer - named John St. Clair (Jack) Kilby. ...

"In 1947, he got a job at the Centralab division of Globe Union in Milwaukee, working on miniaturizing circuits. That year, William Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Laboratories, revolutionizing the world of electronics.

"Before transistors, electrical devices were powered by vacuum tubes, which were big, heavy, fragile, and very hot. By contrast, transistors were compact and light; they had no moving parts, they ran cool, and the switching and amplifying were handled by a semiconductor, not a glass bulb. ... By Christmas 1954, the first transistor radio, small enough to fit in a pocket, hit the market at a retail price of $49.95 and quickly became the biggest-selling consumer product the country had ever seen. ...

"[But progress beyond things like the transistor radio was difficult.] The problem was this. If you wanted a computer or some other electronic device to perform more complex operations more quickly, you would need an extra set of components - transistors, resistors, capacitors, diodes, rectifiers, and the wires to connect them all into a circuit - for each increment in speed, memory, or storage space. The futuristic miracle machines of science fiction would require so many extra components - and so much wiring, all connected precisely by hand - that, as a practical matter, they could not be built. ... The barrier was called 'the tyranny of numbers.'

"Miniaturization became every electronics firm's mantra. ... Still, miniaturization alone wouldn't topple the tyranny of numbers. In some ways, because smaller components were more difficult to wire, it only intensified the problem. To break through the barrier would require a whole new approach. But what was it?

"In May 1958, Kilby moved from Milwaukee to Dallas to take a job with Texas Instruments, which had just opened a new building devoted to semiconductor research. In July, most employees took their two-week summer vacation, but Kilby hadn't been with the company long enough to earn the time off. So he stayed at the new lab and thought about the problem, all alone.

"Texas Instruments had made a big investment in silicon, so he focused on that as his basic material. Typically, silicon would be purified for the manufacture of transistors. But if it were treated with certain impurities, it could be used as a conductor. Treated and molded in another way, it could serve as a resistor. It could be the material for any component in a circuit - not the ideal material, but good enough.

"This was Kilby's initial insight, ... but this realization sparked a much larger conceptual breakthrough, the basis for a solution to the fundamental problem, the tyranny of numbers: If all the parts of a circuit could be made from the same material, maybe they could all be manufactured on a single monolithic slab. If you wanted more complexity, you wouldn't need more components or more wiring and soldering to connect them.

"On July 24, Kilby drew a rough sketch of the idea in his lab notebook and wrote, 'The following circuit elements could be made on a single slice: resistors, capacitor, distributed capacitor, transistor.' Thus was born the integrated circuit. ...

"There was no guarantee that the integrated circuits would get off the ground. ... In the beginning, they were very expensive. To make a dent in the marketplace, they'd have to be much cheaper; but to be cheaper, they would have to have made a big dent in the marketplace - there would have to be high demand, so that they could be produced in mass quantity. That wouldn't happen until the beginning of the sixties, when President John Kennedy ordered production of the Minuteman II missile - which required tiny, reliable circuits for its guidance system - and, especially, when he set the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Missiles and space created the large demand. In 1961, a single chip cost $32. By 1971, thanks to the economies of large-scale production, the cost would plunge to $1.25. (By 2000, after the consumer market had vastly expanded, the price of a much more powerful chip would be less than a nickel.)

"As with many of the breakthroughs converging on the eve of the sixties, the space race and the arms race - the twin prospects of infinite expansion and instant annihilation - spurred America and the world into a lightning-flash new era."

Fred Kaplan, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Wiley, Copyright 2009 by Fred Kaplan, pp. 76-81


Blogger jhochste said...

How nicely condescending: " - not even a physicist, but an engineer ...". This reveals a staggering level of ignorance. I suggest the author investigate how many "inventions" are made by scientists .vs. how many by engineers and others. To quote Theodore von Kármán, an engineer and a pioneer of aerospace and fluid mechanics: "Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been."

10:48 AM  

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