Kilbys World Etched in Sand

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-04-02
 
 
 

There are no family photos or mementos. Not a single plaque, diploma or trophy. The white walls in Jack Kilbys office are ready and waiting for someone — anyone — to hang something on them. Whats the deal? Did the renowned inventor just move into his small office in north Dallas?

"No," replies Kilby in his slow baritone. "Ive been in this office for 13 years."

Most people, having won a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics three months before, would probably make time to hang up one — maybe even two — things. Perhaps a photo of themselves shaking hands with Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden, as a reminder that they have done well, that their life has met with some success.

Not Kilby.

Call it strange, if you like. Few people would argue; not even his friends. "He puts things in a different order than most people do," says Charley Clough, a former colleague of Kilbys at Texas Instruments.

Perhaps thats how Kilby — by putting things in a different order — was able to leap past hundreds of others in the 1950s with an invention that changed the world and won him the worlds most prestigious prize, 40 years later .

That invention? The integrated circuit — which solved the puzzling problems that scientists then referred to as the "tyranny of numbers." Scientists could dream of huge computers but couldnt build them because putting together the circuits they needed was too onerous. Circuit designs were growing so complex that miles of wire and hundreds of soldered connections were required. The material costs, complexity and sheer size of the circuits created a tyranny that was deemed insurmountable, despite huge research teams of government and private sector scientists.

Kilby realized the basic elements of a circuit — the resistor, capacitor, diodes and transistor — could be made of silicon instead of carbon, the material favored by other scientists. And if all the parts of a circuit could be made of the same material, why not carve them onto a single slice of silicon? The advantages were obvious: If the parts could be carved — or printed — onto the silicon, there would be no wires and no solder. As he told one reporter, "I was the ignorant freshman in the field. I didnt know what everybody else considered impossible, so I didnt rule anything out."

By not ruling anything out, Kilby transformed computing. On Sept. 12, 1958, just months after TI hired Kilby, the companys top brass came to Kilbys lab to see if his circuit-on-a-chip idea would work. It did. And the world was changed. Kilby was 34.

Famous but Simple

A tall, laconic man prone to short sentences, simple clothes and little introspection, Kilby is a throwback. There is no braggadocio or flash, no hype. Instead, he has the type of quiet, unflappable persona one might expect in a world-weary Kansas wheat farmer. But that doesnt mean Kilby downplays the impact his invention has had. It is, after all, what has made possible todays sophisticated high-speed computers.

The panoply of electronics now available have all come about "because the cost of an electronic function has decreased by something more than a million to one. In 1959, TI sold silicon transistors that werent very good for $10 apiece. Today, $10 will buy you a couple hundred million better transistors. And I think that kind of cost decrease is completely unprecedented," says Kilby, as he pulls another cigarette — Carlton Kings — from the pack and lights it. "Nothing in the world has ever changed that way. What you are seeing are the consequences of that change. And theyre not over. Weve got some more to go."

Kilby is clearly right. Just dont expect him to make time for the products of that change. He doesnt use a cell phone or a pager. He has no use for a Palm Pilot. Hes almost completely uninterested in the Internet. "Ive not done a lot of browsing on the Web," says Kilby, who, when asked, cant name a single Web site. Nor does he care about computers. On the credenza behind his desk sits a yellowing Dell Computer 316, complete with tiny monitor and 80386SX chip running at 16 megahertz. The relic works just fine, thank you very much, says Kilby, who uses it for the occasional spreadsheet or letter. "It does everything I need it to," he says. But, when pressed, Kilby will admit hes having trouble getting the antique machine to cooperate with the brand new Hewlett-Packard printer sitting beside it. "If I got a new computer, Id have to cope with all the new software, which Im not eager to do."

He has another computer, a newer Dell laptop, which he uses to retrieve his e-mail every once in a while. But that too, is almost an annoyance. "E-mail has assumed a place in our lives that I didnt realize had been missing," he says with a smile.

Kilby can afford a new computer and lots of other things. The Nobel Foundation recently gave him a check for nearly half a million dollars. What will Kilby do with it? "Pay taxes," he replies, without missing a beat. "Thats ordinary income. Its not trivial."

Son of an Engineer

Kilby was born Nov. 8, 1923, in Great Bend, Kan., where his father ran the local electric utility. While in high school, Kilby decided he wanted to be an electrical engineer and that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the school for him. So in June 1941, he set out by train for MIT to take the entrance exam. The minimum passing grade was 500. Kilby failed and he still remembers his grade: 497. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Kilby went to the University of Illinois on the GI Bill. He got his electrical engineering degree and worked for a few years at a small electronic components company. When TI offered him a job in 1958, he accepted immediately.

After Kilbys triumph with the integrated circuit, he began working to improve the design and find useful applications for his invention. Kilby and an associate began working on a handheld calculator in the mid-1960s. After five years of work, TI sold the first models — at a price that Kilby recalls was $450. "Now," he says with a chuckle, "they give them away."

In the early 1970s Kilby left TI to work as an independent inventor. The holder of some 50 patents, his inventions include an electronic check writer and a paging system with "selectively actuable pocket printers." And while Kilby will always be known for his work on the integrated circuit, a lesser-known project he pursued for about seven years, but was forced to abandon, held similar promise. Kilby developed a solar energy system that used panels of spherical solar cells to obtain hydrogen from hydrogen bromide. The hydrogen was then fed into a fuel cell that produced electricity. The bromine was stored in a tank and later reunited with the hydrogen, so it could be reused.

The beauty of the design, says Kilbys friend, Skip Porter, the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma, was that rather than "store the energy in a battery, you stored it back in the chemical bonds between the hydrogen and bromine."

In 1983, despite the promise of the design and an investment of more than $25 million by the Department of Energy and millions more by TI, the company decided to stop the project, much to the chagrin of Kilby, who was overseeing a team of two dozen engineers. "He had great faith in the commercial feasibility of that product," says Clough. "He was really upset with TI for pulling the plug on it. But TI was going through tough times."

Kilby, ever the stoic, doesnt talk much about the solar cell project, saying only he was "disappointed" that TI halted funding. But Clough says the project would have been "a magnitude development like the integrated circuit. It would have really been a mammoth step forward." Had the work continued, he said, "we wouldnt be having problems like the energy problem in California."

Now at age 77, Kilby is no longer working on any inventions. And aside from cigarettes, his vices are few. He still lives in the same modest house he and his late wife, Barbara, bought when they moved to Dallas in 1958. His only apparent extravagance is a gold 1997 Lexus SC 300 coupe, a car that he admits cost "quite a bit more" than what he paid for his house.

Kilby is a voracious reader and loves to travel. This spring, hell visit London and Shanghai, China, giving speeches on the history of integrated circuits. One of his few paying jobs is a board membership at Bookham Technology, an English company that makes chips for use in Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing equipment and other fiber-optic gear.

Now that hes been on Bookhams board for a year or so, has he been able to provide useful guidance to the fledgling company? "Not yet," says Kilby. Indeed, despite the fact that he has won the Nobel Prize, that, like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, his picture hangs in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, that he has won virtually every engineering prize in existence, Kilby cannot — will not — say he is pulling his weight at Bookham or anywhere else.

"I hope to do more in the future," Kilby says, "but I cant really say Ive really done much so far."

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