A recent silicon chip

History: Back to the invention of the first silicon chip for computers

Nowadays computers are part of our everyday life and no one could imagine a world without them. They have touched almost every aspect of human life but if you look back in the past, just 70 years ago, the world was far different. Let’s have a look back on the history of the first invention of silicon chips for computer.

Who invented the first computer and when?

The 40s were fabulous years when incredible new technologies appeared. In those years, George Stibitz, one of the fathers of modern digital computers, invented « Model K », the first digital computer in the history. In reality, it was just a relay based calculator able to do calculations using simple binary addition. But at the time, it was a proper revolution.

Still, it was really far from what we know today as computers. It was room-sized and weighted as much as a double-decker bus and was covered with millions of buzzing electronic switches known as vacuum tubes. It also gobbled up incredible slews of energy to make even the simplest of calculations. That was how the first computer was invented, at a time when electronics industry was still dominated by fragile, power hungry and bulky vacuum tube technology.

Later, the vacuum tube technology was replaced by a much smaller, reliable and longer lasting solution, known as transistors. Those appeared in the 1970s and inspired engineers to invent a technology able to handle even larger amounts of data. They were looking into something even more reliable, cost-effective and minuscule in size.

Jack Kilby and the invention of the silicon chip

During year 1958, Jack Kilby, an american engineer with expertise in ceramic-based circuit boards and transistorized hearing aids, was hired at Texas Instruments to work on electronic component miniaturization. The problem he was working on was known as ‘the tyranny of numbers’ in circuit design, which means that the more components a circuit has, the more difficult it was to fuse them together with the help of traditional wiring methods. In order to solve this issue, he came up with an ingenious solution, which was to manufacture all circuit components in a single piece semiconductor substrate : an integrated circuit, also known as silicon chip.

It is on September 12 that he managed to put together an unpolished device using a piece of semiconductor material made of germanium. Attached to an oscilloscope, the circuit demonstrated a continuous sinewave. This was the proof that Kilby’s idea was working. The world was witnessing the invention of the first integrated circuit, also known as silicon chip. It was the beggining of a new area of history that no one – not even Kilby – could have possibly imagined.

Not only was the silicon chip minuscule, less power consuming and reliable, but it was also very cost-effective in terms of electronic functions. One year later, Kilby applied for a patent for ‘solid circuit made of germanium’ and in year 2000, he awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution in this revolutionary invention.

How silicon chips changed the course of history

When we look back at the history of silicon chips, it is hard to believe that such a tiny piece of electronics which has been in the world for only half a century has revolutionised the course of history so much. Without this invention, there would be nowadays no far-reaching electronics products at all. If you think about if, how many chip-based devices do you use everyday without even thinking of it?

In reality, the invention of the first silicon chip pushed the history into the age of informatics and electronics we know today. Yesterday’s room-sized machines are now replaced by pocket-sized computers known as smartphones and this could not have been without the invention of silicon chips. They have transformed most of the facets of our everyday life, like the way communication takes place in today’s age of instant messaging.

Without silicon chips, NASA wouldn’t be able to explore the space, deafs wouldn’t be able to hear, doctors wouldn’t have any medical diagnostic machines, we wouldn’t have smartphones or computers or GPS or TVs or radios… And the list is long, as still today, silicon chips are gifting us with new technologies every day.

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