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Gallery: Faster, Smaller, Cheaper — 50 Years of Integrated Circuits

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Gallery: Faster, Smaller, Cheaper — 50 Years of Integrated Circuits
: Photo: Courtesy Texas InstrumentsNotebooks, smartphones, Blu-ray players -- name a gadget, and it probably wouldn't exist today without the integrated circuit.
Not only did the IC give rise to the modern consumer electronics industry, but it has also kept that industry moving at breakneck speed, allowing for cheaper, smaller and more-powerful chips to be produced year after year with dazzling consistency.
So, it's easy to forget that it's only been five decades since Texas Instruments' Jack Kilby demonstrated the first working IC, a discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000. While that device started out as nothing more than a single transistor with a smattering of other components on a thin slice of germanium, its silicon progeny now contain hundreds of millions of transistors in a space the size of a single red blood cell. Not bad progress for a half-century's work.
Left: Consisting of five components linked by a tangle of wires, the first integrated circuit wasn't particularly pretty. But it did prove that a device could be built with all its circuit components on the same piece of semiconducting material -- in this case germanium -- rather than using individual, discrete parts.
The circuit was the handiwork of Kilby, who was trying to solve the so-called "tyranny of numbers" problem. Though the invention of the transistor more than a decade earlier at Bell Labs had rendered vacuum tubes obsolete, engineers faced a vexing new problem by the late '50s: All those discrete components -- transistors, diodes, capacitors and the like -- still had to be connected manually to form electronic circuits. This was impractical for obvious reasons, so Kilby came up with a new solution.
Realizing that the semiconductor was really the most-important ingredient in the circuit stew, he found that other passive components -- like resistors and capacitors -- could actually be made from the same material as the semiconductor. "I … realized that, since all of the components could be made of a single material, they could also be made in situ interconnect to form a complete circuit," Kilby explained in his 1976 article, "Invention of the IC."
: Image: U. S. Patent OfficeThe birth of the IC adheres nicely to the notion of simultaneous invention, recently elucidated by Malcolm Gladwell. Turns out, the concept was on the minds of many engineers in the 1950s. In fact, there were multiple people working independently on more or less the same idea both before and after Kilby's circuit was built. One of those engineers was Fairchild co-founder Robert Noyce. The year after Kilby built the first working IC, Noyce filed a patent for a "Semiconductor device-and-lead structure." In 1960, engineers at Fairchild produced the first working monolithic IC, a complete circuit integrated on a single piece of silicon (instead of germanium) and interconnected by traces of conductive material deposited on the surface.
It was Noyce's approach to building an IC that finally yielded a practical method for manufacturing integrated circuits in large quantities. Both Kilby and Noyce received the National Medal of Science, and they are considered co-inventors of the IC.
: Photo: Courtesy Texas InstrumentsDespite the clear advantages of integrated circuits (low cost, better performance), it took a while for the industry to find practical applications. As is often the case with new technologies, it was the military and various other government entities that first expressed interest.
In 1961, Texas Instruments built something called the "Molecular Electronic Computer" for the U.S. Air Force as a way of demonstrating that 587 ICs could actually replace 8,500 transistors.
NASA's interest in the technology was also piqued in the early '60s, and integrated circuits eventually found their way into NASA's Apollo Guidance Computer, as well as its Interplanetary Monitoring Probe (IMP), which went into orbit in 1963.
: Photo: Courtesy Spaceline.org In 1962, Texas Instruments won a lucrative contract from the Autonetics Division of North American Aviation to design 22 custom circuits for the Minuteman I and II missile-guidance systems. That system was not only the first missile to use integrated circuits, but was also the first military use of solid-state technology in general.
By 1965, the Air Force had surpassed NASA as the single largest buyer of ICs in the world.
: Photo: Courtesy Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corp.Intel co-founder Gordon Moore (left, 1962) also played an integral role in the evolution of the IC. In 1965, while still the R&D director at Fairchild Semiconductor, Moore wrote an internal paper, "The Future of Integrated Electronics," that attempted to predict the development of integrated electronics for the next 10 years. Moore eventually projected that the number of components per chip would reach 65,000 by that year -- essentially doubling every 12 months. Of course, we now know this idea as Moore's Law, the driving force in the computer industry for close to four decades now.
While Moore eventually pushed his back his rate of increase from 12 to 24 months, he still has recently admitted to being "perpetually amazed" at the chip industry's ability to keep pushing out the fundamental limits of his law.
: Photo: Courtesy IntelIn the '60s, calculators were hulking machines the size of desktops that had to be plugged into power outlets. The IC changed all that.
Nippon Calculating Machine Corporation tapped Intel in 1969 to design 12 custom chips for a new calculator it was developing, the Busicom 141-PF (left). Running considerably behind schedule, Intel engineers Ted Hoff, Federico Faggin and Stan Mazor proposed an alternative design: a family of four chips, including one that could be programmed for use in a variety of products. Thus, the 4004 was born.
: Photo: Courtesy IntelAs time progressed, the integrated circuit gave way to the microprocessor, a complete computation engine fabricated on a single chip. Intel's 4004 wasn't the first commercial microprocessor, but it was the first to be sold as a component on the open market.
Measuring 1/8 inch by 1/6 inch, the microprocessor delivered about the same computing power as the first electronic computer, the ENIAC, according to Intel's Ted Hoff. The only difference was that in 1946, ENIAC used 18,000 vacuum tubes and filled an entire room.
: Image (right): Hamilton Watch CompanyFrom pocket calculators to digital watches, the next major commercial application for the IC was "the wrist computer." The Microma LCD digital watch was the first product to integrate a complete electronic system onto a single silicon chip, also known as a System-On-Chip (SOC). A SOC integrated circuit incorporates all the electronic components, including analog and interface circuitry, required to implement a system on a single chip.
The right-hand image shows the guts of a precursor to the fully realized SOC, the Hamilton Pulsar. The wristwatch sold for $2,100 in 1970 ($11,900 in today's money).
: Photo: Courtesy Intel Today, chip manufacturers like Intel and AMD can cram unprecedented numbers of transistors into multicore chips. Current 45-nanometer transistors are so small you can fit about 30 million of them on the head of a pin. What's more, the price of an individual transistor in today's processors is about a millionth the average price of a transistor in 1968, lending credence to Gordon Moore's famous quip: "If the auto industry advanced as rapidly as the semiconductor industry, a Rolls Royce would get a half a million miles per gallon, and it would be cheaper to throw it away than to park it."


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