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Inventor and Nobel physics laureate Kilby dies

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By Laura Schmitt
June 23, 2005

  • University of Illinois electrical engineering alumnus Jack St. Clair Kilby (BS ‘47), died of cancer Monday, June 20, 2005, in Dallas. He was 81
  • Kilby won the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics for his part in the invention and development of the integrated circuit, which he first demonstrated on September 12, 1958, while at Texas Instruments.

Taken April 18, 2001, at a symposium on campus to honor Jack for his 2000 Nobel Prize.
Taken April 18, 2001, at a symposium on campus to honor Jack for his 2000 Nobel Prize.

University of Illinois electrical engineering alumnus Jack St. Clair Kilby (BS ‘47), died of cancer Monday, June 20, 2005, in Dallas. He was 81. Kilby won the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics for his part in the invention and development of the integrated circuit, which he first demonstrated on September 12, 1958, while at Texas Instruments.

Kilby’s invention enabled the microelectronics field to grow to become the basis of all modern technology. ICs, or microchips, are pervasive in such things as computers, space probes, cars, medical diagnostic equipment, cell phones, and electronic watches.

In a December 8, 2000, Nobel-related lecture at Stockholm University, Kilby commented about his role in advancing technology. “In 1958, my goals were simple: to lower the cost, simplify the assembly, and make things smaller and more reliable. And although I do not consider myself responsible for all the activity that has followed, it has been very satisfying to watch the IC’s evolution. I’m pleased to have had even a small part in helping turn the potential of human creativity into practical reality.”

Kilby’s interest in electronics can be traced to his youth. His father, an Illinois alumnus, ran a power company that served a wide area in rural Kansas, and he used amateur radio to keep in contact with customers during emergencies. During an ice storm, the teenage Kilby saw firsthand how electronic technology could positively impact people’s lives.

Undergraduate days and the war
Kilby finished his first semester when the United States entered World War II. He joined the Army and was assigned to the enlisted reserve corps. His unit did not ship overseas until June 1943.

After attending the Army’s radio operator school, Kilby transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor of sorts to the Central Intelligence Agency. He spent the remainder of the war in India, Burma, and China, mostly as a technician maintaining radio transmitters.

When he returned to Illinois in 1946, the school and the electrical engineering department were quite different. Student enrollments had increased dramatically and visionary leaders like EE Head William Everitt were emphasizing the importance of research.

Kilby’s early career
After graduating from Illinois, Kilby took a job at Centralab in Milwaukee because “they were one of the few companies in the country to work on an early form of the integrated circuit…what we would call thick-film hybrid circuits today,” Kilby said at an April 2001 symposium held in his honor on campus. Centralab had licensed the transistor technology from Bell Labs after its invention in 1947.

Kilby mostly taught himself about the emerging semiconductor field, though he did attend a one month short-course in the summer of 1953 at Illinois, where John Bardeen, the inventor of the transistor, was a fairly new faculty member.

According to Kilby, the transistor was changing electronics dramatically during the 1950s. “Up to that time, electronic equipment had been put together with a variety of components—resistors, capacitors, diodes, etc.,” he said. “All of these were made using a completely different process so that they were made individually and soldered together.

If you looked at a picture of an electronics production group at that time, what you saw were long rows of women carefully soldering these parts together. This wasn’t as bad as it sounded. The only electronics that existed at that time in quantity were radios—and they only took a couple dozen components—and a TV, which had maybe 300 or 400. But the computer, with its demands for thousands of circuits, changed that completely.”

The invention
In 1958, Kilby joined Texas Instruments in Dallas, TX, to work on miniaturization, which meant addressing the demand for thousands of circuits. At that time, TI made resistors, capacitors, transistors, and diodes, so Kilby looked at the possibility of some repackaging. “I got a shock when I took the first design and went through a cost analysis,” he said. “The overheads were two to three times the size that they had been at Centralab in Milwaukee.

“This triggered the thought: perhaps the only thing a semiconductor company could make was a semiconductor,” he continued. “It seems a little obvious but it wasn’t at the time. I also realized that perhaps semiconductors were all you needed. You certainly could make resistors from semiconductors. You could make capacitors, as well as transistors and diodes. So I proposed to make all of these from the same material.”

During the summer of that year, Kilby conceived and built the first electronic circuit in which all of the components, both active and passive, were fabricated in a single piece of semiconductor material half the size of a paper clip. Several months later, Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor invented another version of the IC. Noyce went on to cofound Intel Corp.

The IC’s reputation was enhanced when the Air Force chose to use it in the Minuteman Missile. In search of ways to incorporate the IC into consumer products, Kilby led the TI team that invented the hand-held calculator in the late 1960s. About the size of a paperback book, this calculator went on the market in 1971 and cost about $450.

In 1970, he took a leave of absence from TI to work as an independent inventor. From 1978 to 1984, he held the position of Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University.

In addition to the Nobel Prize in physics, Kilby received the National Medal of Science in 1970, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Medal of Honor in 1986, the 1993 Kyoto Prize from Japan, and in 1989 he shared the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize with Robert Noyce. He also received several major alumni awards from his alma mater, including the ECE Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, the College of Engineering Alumni Award for Distinguished Service in 1971, and the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award in 1973.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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