History's Great Engineers: Jack St. Clair Kilby

2003 Engineers: Changing the World Essay Contest
3rd place Contest Winner, Gr 9-12

By James Welton

If there is a man to be admitted into the Engineering Hall of Fame it should be Jack St. Clair Kilby. Besides the fact that he won the Nobel Prize for physics (even though he isn't a physicist), he invented the most prominent and important piece of technology in the past half century: the microchip. Jack Kilby's creation of the semiconductor integrated circuit-- the powerhouse for all digital devices-- jump-started the information age. Even with several patents to his name, he never received much recognition or accrued large amounts of money. In 1941 he applied to MIT, failing the entrance exam, scoring 497 points out of a passing grade of 500. After working at a radio repair shop during WWII and majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois he was offered a job at Centralab, a small electronic-components company. In 1958, when Kilby was 34 years old, Texas Instruments in Dallas hired him as part of their engineering research team. Engineers inspired by newly invented transistors, designed circuits for electronic devices, such as high-speed computers. But the design was too complicated and could not be efficiently manufactured, as it required miles of wire and millions of soldered connections. The government spent large sums to find a solution. Kilby decided to tackle the problem himself. He found the answer in a compact slice of silicon, that could hold large quantities of components, even an entire computer circuit. His idea became a working reality on September 12, 1958 when Kilby's first test of the "integrated circuit" was successful. Several months later, fellow American Robert Noyce arrived at the same solution as Kilby. However, Noyce's design was easier to produce. Bob Noyce is usually referred to as co-inventor of the chip. Noyce then went on to found Intel, and would have shared the Nobel Prize with Kilby if he had not died in 1990. Now the integrated circuit market is a $177 billion industry. On December 10, 2000, Jack St. Clair Kilby won the Nobel Prize, finally receiving the recognition he deserved. As one of the most innovative and influential inventors of the 20th century, Kilby would be secured a place in any Engineering Hall of Fame.