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The creation of the transistor in 1947 was an important technological advance over the vacuum tubes used in early radios and television sets. Not only were vacuum tubes bulky, but like light bulbs, they tended to get hot and burn out. Ten years later, in the late 1950s, the limitations of transistor technology were already becoming apparent as companies and consumers had an insatiable demand for smaller, faster, and more reliable devices.
Unfortunately, it takes time for electricity to travel through wires, and the longer the wires and the more transistors in a system, the slower the machine becomes. Making devices smaller also raised other problems: it became more and more unreliable to solder and make connections by hand, and those links were impossible to make by machine.
Integrated circuits, or silicon chips, represented an important breakthrough as it allowed engineers to put all of the circuit components on a single block of silicon. In 1958 and 1959, two men Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce, then of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, both filed for patents for new transistor technology. The concept was invented by Kilby, who went on to create the hand-held calculator and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 for his discovery of the integrated circuit. Noyce refined the concept to utilize silicon rather than Kilby’s germanium, and in 1968 co-founded Intel, the world’s largest microchip maker.
Noyce solved the problem of connecting tiny wires by spraying metal onto the surface of the chip as the final layer. By removing some of the metal, the appropriate wires could be formed without the necessity of soldering or tedious manual labor.
All of our modern computer, cell phone, GPS and related technologies are based on the fundamental discoveries and inventions made by these teams.
More information on integrated circuits may be found at http://nobelprize.org/educational/physics/integrated_circuit/history/
This topic was adapted from the technology milestones project of 2001 ACS President Attila Pavlath.