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    How digital revolution was launched

    Sometimes it is the most unassuming people who launch the world’s most revolutionary developments.
    No one expected any truly historic accomplishments from Jack St. Clair Kilby, when the unassuming, 34-year-old electrical engineer joined Texas Instruments in Dallas in 1958. His career had not been particularly spectacular.

    The son of the manager of an electrical utility at Great Bend, Kansas, Kilby had grown up wanting to become an engineer like his father. But his application for admission to MIT failed when he scored only 497 on the entrance exam: the minimum for acceptance was 500.

    During the Second World War, Kilby served as a corporal in the U.S. Army, repairing radios at an outpost in India. After finally earning a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1947, he went to work for an electronic-components maker, the only firm to offer him a job.

    In 1958, Kilby joined Texas Instruments and soon tackled a problem that had stumped the best brains in electronics: how to overcome the miles of wiring that would be required to enable the newly-developed transistor handle big, complicated tasks. His approach was simple: eliminate the wires.

    “I was the ignorant freshman in the field,” Kilby later recalled. “I didn’t know what everybody else considered impossible, so I didn’t rule anything out.”

    Texas Instruments approved his request to test his idea on how to eliminate the wires and soldering but asked him to keep the test simple: the firm didn’t want to spend much money on it.

    Six weeks later, on September 12, 1958, Kilby demonstrated his discovery for the brass at Texas Instruments. It worked, and the digital revolution was born.

    Kilby’s invention was the microchip, an integrated circuitboard on a tiny sliver of silicon, the heart of every personal computer, cell phone and hundreds of other devices, the most important invention in half a century.

    Kilby continued his work in electronics and acquired more than 60 patents. In 2000, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

    Notes from “You Can Thank Mr. Chips,” by T.R. Reid, Washington Post Magazine, December 10, 2000.

    Category: Science and technology

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