Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 27/7/2005So farewell then, Jack Kirby, inventor of the integrated circuit, whose death was announced late last week. Like many of the fundamental creations in technology, the story has attracted some aspects of a folk tale and some controversy.

Monday 27/7/2005

So farewell then, Jack Kirby, inventor of the integrated circuit, whose death was announced late last week. Like many of the fundamental creations in technology, the story has attracted some aspects of a folk tale and some controversy. The folklore — which is by all accounts true — is that Kirby invented the IC because he was a new hire at Texas Instruments and didn't have any holiday accrued by the time the place shut down for the summer. Keen not to have to go back to working on complicated, unreliable packaging for complex circuits when the boss came back, Kirby realised that everything you need in a design could be made out of silicon and wired up as one block. There was nobody around to stop him, he had the run of the labs and plenty of resources. It turned out that he was right, and TI immediately recognised that it had a major breakthrough on its hands.

The controversy is that at roughly the same time, one Robert Noyce was coming to the same conclusions — but in addition worked out how to do the wiring as part of the same process that made the rest of the components. Mutually antagonistic patents were filed and a lot of court time was spent gnawing over the bones, but in the end peace was declared, Kilby got half a Nobel Prize for Physics and Noyce got to co-found Intel. This is not a tale of unrewarded invention.

It's also worth remembering that the first actual order for one of Kirby's integrated circuits — and the thing that convinced a sceptical world that the idea might literally fly — came as part of the Minuteman nuclear missile project. Most of the pressures for more reliable, more robust, smaller and better ways of making smart circuits were directly or indirectly part of the arms race. Even the Apollo mission to the moon — the major motivation for developing the sort of logic integrated circuits that powered the microcomputer revolution that's led to you reading this — only makes sense in the context of beating the Ruskies to places of potential strategic importance.

But none of that was Kirby's fault. After the invention of the IC, he led a blameless and uncontroversial life. He subsequently created the pocket calculator and the thermal printer technology that even today presents us with that unwelcome bill at the end of an otherwise agreeable evening (gee, thanks Jack), but he exhibited none of the eccentricity or off-tangent weirdness that dismays friends and delights obituary writers. His modesty and good humour are widely remarked, and despite intensive research I've been unable to find a single word that contradicts this picture. An uncomplicated man who created more useful complexity than the world has ever seen before.

Not a bad epitaph.

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