Happy 50th Birthday, Dear Microchip

When it comes to all the gadget-y things that now fill up our world — from computers to mobile phones — we should thank Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, the inventors of the integrated circuit. Fifty years ago today, while all of his colleagues were on vacation, Kilby wired a few transistors on a piece of silicon and created the first microchip.

That’s the story we hear in Texas, where Kilby spent his career at Texas Instruments, although Robert Noyce, the co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor, shares credit for the invention as well. Today there are more chips than people, and the humble IC has grown into the engines that run our modern world.

But looking ahead to the next 50 years, the needs of speed, lowered energy consumption and worries over environmental contaminants mean that the humble chip will need to change. Already chip companies are turning from increasing the clock speed of chips to increasing the number of cores on a chip. They’re also trying to replace wires with light or store more data in semiconductors that can be built into towers, rather than lay flat. Looking a few more years into the future, researchers are attempting to replace memory chips with protein storage or using chlorophyll to make photovoltaic cells.

In an effort to bring some of these (and some less futuristic) ideas to market, Texas Instruments is using the 50th anniversary to announce an addition to its R&D efforts. The semiconductor company is opening a Jack Kilby Research Center near Dallas, where employees will have a chance to pursue research ideas. TI already spends $2.1 billion on R&D efforts in various areas of the company, but the new program will allow any employees to suggest a research idea, get approval and then spend 6-24 months proving it could be a commercial product. Mark Denissen, VP of strategic marketing at TI, says the lab research costs will be in the “multimillion-dollar” range, but if it produces efforts such as the ultra low-power chip TI has created with MIT, the payoff could be big.

image of Kilby courtesy of TI