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Microchip inventor and UW engineering alumnus Kilby dies

June 22, 2005

Jack St. Clair Kilby, co-inventor of the integrated circuit or microchip, and a 1950 master’s degree graduate in electrical engineering at UW–Madison, died of cancer Monday, June 20, at his home in Dallas. He was 81.

On Sept. 12, 1958, in a lab at Texas Instruments, Kilby successfully demonstrated 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. His accomplishment was recognized with the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics.

His demonstration opened the door to miniaturizing the transistor, co-invented 10 years earlier by electrical engineering alumnus John Bardeen. The transistor replaced the vacuum tubes of the earliest computers.

“The impact of Kilby’s invention is profound,” says UW–Madison College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. “In the space of Kilby’s first transistor, engineers can now fit about 100 million transistors. It was the genesis of very many more innovations that continue to improve our lives. It set the stage for the computing revolution, which in turn made possible the information age. Researchers are now working on single-electron transistors and self-assembling circuits. Kilby’s invention not only set the stage for all of this, it forever changed the pace of innovation.”

Kilby joined Texas Instruments in 1958. He held a number of positions in semiconductor research and development management, including assistant vice president and director of engineering, until his retirement in 1970. Since then, he had worked as an independent consultant and inventor of integrated circuit technology. From 1978-84, he also held the position of distinguished professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University.

In an interview for Texas Instruments, Kilby reflected on his thoughts at the time the circuit was invented: “I think I thought it would be important for electronics as we knew it then, but that was a much simpler business and electronics was mostly radio and television and the first computers. What we did not appreciate was how much the lower costs would expand the field of electronics into completely different applications that I don’t know that anyone had thought of at that time.”

Kilby held more than 60 patents, including the first on monolithic integrated circuits, reduced titanate capacitors, semiconductor thermal printers and hand-held calculators.

He received a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in 1947. After graduation, he worked for the Centralab Division of Globe-Union Inc. in Milwaukee, where he worked on ceramic-based printed circuits.

Kilby was the recipient of numerous national and international awards. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the 1995 winner of the Robert N. Noyce Award, the Semiconductor Industry Association’s highest honor.

Kilby was born in Jefferson City, Mo., in 1923, and grew up in Great Bend, Kan. His father was the owner of a small electric company, and Kilby became interested in radio tubes while listening to big band radio in the 1940s.

He is survived by two daughters: Janet Kilby Cameron of Palisade, Colo., and Ann Kilby of Austin, Texas.; five granddaughters and a son-in-law. His wife, Barbara, died in 1981.

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