Jack St. Clair Kilby, Nobel Prize-winning engineer and inventor of the first integrated circuit (or microchip), was born on November 8, 1923, in Jefferson City, Missouri. He was the eldest child of Hubert St. Clair Kilby and Melvina (Freitag) Kilby. His father soon became president of the Kansas Power Company, prompting the family to move, first to Salina, Kansas, and then to Great Bend, Kansas, the latter of which Jack Kilby regarded as his hometown. During a blizzard in 1937, Jack Kilby saw his father use a ham radio to assess the extent of power outages and damage caused by the storm. This event stimulated his interest in radios and electronics. About the time Kilby entered Great Bend High School, he earned his amateur radio license. In high school he competed in football and basketball. He also developed a lifelong interest in photography. He built a darkroom at home and snapped photos for his high school and later college yearbooks.
After graduating from high school in 1941, Kilby applied to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but barely failed the entrance exam. He then enrolled in the University of Illinois, from which both of his parents had graduated. In June 1943, after completing his sophomore year, he joined the U. S. Army Signal Corps. During his training, he was recruited and assigned to Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services, which was deployed to East Asia to carry out guerilla operations that they coordinated by using portable radios. Upon his discharge in December 1945, his rank was T-4 Radio Operator, the equivalent of an army sergeant. He returned to the University of Illinois and earned his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in August 1947. In his last two years at the university, he began dating Barbara Louis Annegers. The two married on June 27, 1948, in Galesburg, Illinois. After his graduation, Kilby was hired by Centralab, a division of Globe-Union, Inc., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He earned a master of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1950 while working at Centralab. He was awarded his first patent on May 5, 1953.
In the 1950s the greatest challenge facing electronic engineers was called the interconnections problem (or “the tyranny of numbers”). Theoretically possible, complex circuits could not be built due to problems of size, weight, and cost raised by the enormous number of interconnections such circuits would require. In 1958 Kilby was hired by Willis Adcock to work on miniaturization for Texas Instruments (TI) in Dallas. However, Kilby disliked the army-backed Micro-Module approach to microminiaturization on which TI was working, as it did not address the fundamental limits posed by the interconnections problem. During the company’s summer break in July 1958, Kilby, who had joined TI in May and had not earned any vacation time, was left to work in the lab alone. During this time, he struck upon a revolutionary solution, known as the “monolithic idea,” to the interconnections problem. Rather than creating individual circuit components from various materials and then wiring them together onto a non-conductive base, the components and the base could all be made out of a single piece of semiconductor material, an integrated circuit. Kilby showed his notes to Adcock when the latter returned from vacation. Although Adcock was initially skeptical, he agreed to allow Kilby to build a prototype. It was successfully tested on September 12, 1958. The components of Kilby’s rushed prototype were crudely wired together by hand. Kilby then proposed printing conductive tracks on a thin material bonded to the semiconductor chip, connecting the circuit components without the need for hand-wiring. These two innovations working in tandem would solve the “tyranny of numbers.” However, another inventor independently arrived at the same conclusions and beat Kilby to the patent.
In 1958 the electronics firm Fairchild developed the planar process, in which a non-conductive coating was bonded to a silicon chip to prevent contamination during production of silicon transistors. Fairchild engineer Robert “Bob” Noyce first came to Kilby’s conclusion about placing conductive tracks on this coating and then to the realization that the rest of the circuit components could all be built out of the same material. Noyce independently developed the monolithic idea in January 1959, only six months after Kilby. In this time, little had been done to further develop Kilby’s integrated circuit at TI. When TI learned of a rumor that another firm had developed an integrated circuit (a rumor which was false and unrelated to the developments at Fairchild), the company rushed to secure a patent, filed on February 6, 1959. Not having yet designed a production model integrated circuit, the diagram of Kilby’s crude prototype was the only design that TI had to submit to the United States Patent Office. Known as the “flying wire” drawing, due to its impractical, arching wiring, Kilby’s preliminary design was far less accurate to what integrated circuits would look like than the design included in Fairchild’s patent request, filed in July. On April 26, 1961, the patent for the integrated circuit was awarded to Noyce. The decision was contested. After two reversals upon appeals, the U. S. Supreme Court, in 1970, declined to hear Kilby v. Noyce, thereby settling the case in favor of Noyce and Fairchild. By then, however, TI and Fairchild had already agreed to share the licensing rights to the integrated circuit. The agreement resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to TI, Fairchild, and Fairchild’s successor companies in the years that followed. Kilby and Noyce also shared credit as “co-inventors.” They were both awarded the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology for their invention. Following Noyce’s death in 1990, Kilby was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology in 1993 and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 for the integrated circuit. He credited Noyce for his contributions upon the reception of both awards.
Kilby was promoted to several management positions at TI and was eventually named assistant vice president in 1968. In the 1960s he developed the pocket calculator, the first consumer product built using integrated circuits. Dissatisfied with the restrictions that working for a large corporation placed on him as an inventor, Kilby left TI in November 1970 to work as a freelance inventor, although he continued to act as a part-time consultant at TI. In the mid-1970s Kilby partnered with TI to develop solar energy technology, but the project was cancelled in 1983. He was a Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M’s Institute of Solid-State Electronics from 1978 to 1984. In 1967 he joined the Dallas Camera Club, continuing his life-long passion for photography. Kilby’s wife died of cancer in November 1981. The couple raised two daughters, Ann and Janet.
Kilby was known for his modesty. In interviews, he often downplayed his own contributions and emphasized the work of others. He was also famously laconic. For his speech at the 1982 ceremony inducting him into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Kilby said only “Thank you.” Among Kilby’s many other awards and honors are the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Holley Medal, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ Medal of Honor. He held six honorary doctorates. The Kilby International Award Foundation, which is based in Dallas and grants awards for scientific advancements, was named after Kilby. In 1997 TI opened a research facility named for him: the Kilby Center. Jack St. Clair Kilby died of cancer at his Dallas home on June 20, 2005. He was eighty-one. At the time of his death he held more than sixty patents. He was buried at Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas.
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Jack S. Kilby, Oral history interview by Arthur L. Norberg, June 21, 1984, Dallas, Texas. Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy (https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/107410), accessed June 12, 2021. Edwin Graham Milllis, Jack St. Clair Kilby, A Man of Few Words: A Brief Biography (Dallas: Ed Millis Books, 2008). T. R. Reid, The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution (New York: Random House, 2001). Texas Instruments, “Jack Kilby Formal Biography” (https://web. archive.org/web/20060403115620/http://ti.com/corp/docs/kilbyctr/kilby.shtml), accessed January 12, 2021.
Innovations and Inventions
Scientists and Researchers
World War II
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