The integrated circuit might not inspire the same level of excitement as other tech breakthroughs, such as Facebook or the iPhone, but the impact of its invention was just as far-reaching, if not more so. You don’t need an engineering degree to understand how it changed everyday life. In fact, if you’re reading this on a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, you’re benefiting from the integrated circuit.
The first commercially viable integrated circuit was invented in Silicon Valley and was fundamental to both naming the region and making it today’s powerhouse of technical invention. Two plaques at the entrance to the former site of the Fairchild Semiconductor building in Palo Alto, California pay homage to the circuit’s significance.
OK, But What Is an Integrated Circuit?
An integrated circuit is an interconnected series of electronic components that are fitted onto a plate the size of a fingernail. It’s also referred to by the more familiar term, the microchip. Integrated circuits are at the heart of most electronics. They perform the core functions of everyday devices, such as smartphones, cars, and ATMs. A microprocessor, the virtual brain inside a computer, is one example of an integrated circuit.
The introduction of the integrated circuit was revolutionary because it made both personal computing and handheld electronics possible. Before integrated circuits, computers filled rooms that resembled a digital Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. For the first half of the 20th century, most electronics functioned on bulky vacuum tubes until the smaller and more efficient transistor was invented. The shift to transistors shrunk circuit boards significantly but not enough to make something like a handheld calculator possible. That all changed with the integrated circuit.
The Revolution Began with the Traitorous Eight
The story starts with the Traitorous Eight. What sounds like the title of a Quentin Tarantino flick refers instead to eight employees of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California who fled to form their own semiconductor company in 1957. Word on the street was that owner William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, was a genius but a less-than-personable boss. The eight men christened their nascent company Fairchild Semiconductor and formalized the partnership by adding their signatures to a set of newly minted one dollar bills.
It was at Fairchild that the current model for the microchip was invented. Robert Noyce, one of the Traitorous Eight, created what was referred to as a monolithic integrated circuit. Rather than a traditional circuit, where individual components — transistors, resistors, and diodes — sat atop a large plate, linked by wires, Noyce’s integrated circuit was one self-contained plate. Using a semiconductor, a substance of exceptional insulation and conductivity, the components were fabricated from and within the plate itself. This enabled the circuit to be much smaller and much faster. For his integrated circuit, Noyce used silicon, the primary element in sand and the material still used to produce microchips. It’s also the substance that eventually redefined the Santa Clara Valley.
Silicon Proves More Fruitful Than Peaches
In the early 20th century, the Santa Clara Valley was blanketed in fruit orchards that supplied the nation with most of its apricots, prunes, and peaches. Long before Apple and Google, the big names in the valley were Del Monte and Sunsweet. But after the rise of Fairchild, the number of semiconductor manufacturers began to proliferate. Many of those companies were formed by former Fairchild employees.
So influential was Fairchild that employees who left to form other companies were dubbed The Fairchildren. Noyce and his associate Gordon Moore eventually left Fairchild to start Intel, which later developed the first commercially viable microprocessor. By 1971, the number of semiconductor manufacturers in the Santa Clara Valley had grown so prevalent that journalist Don Hoefler referred to the region as “Silicon Valley USA,” and the name stuck. Noyce was even called “The Mayor of Silicon Valley.”
The Nobel Prize Goes to Who?
The historical markers at the entrance of the former Fairchild Building in Palo Alto commemorate Noyce’s groundbreaking feat. But the real credit that counts for the invention of the integrated circuit, which won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 for “basic work on information and communication technology,” went to Jack Kilby, not Robert Noyce.
There’s a story behind that, too, of course: In 1958, roughly six months before Noyce’s discovery, Kilby invented the first integrated circuit when he was a new employee of Dallas-based Texas Instruments. But due to vulnerable wiring and the use of germanium as a semiconductor, Kilby’s circuit was judged commercially unviable. Fairchild and Texas Instruments duked it out for years over the claim to the technology but finally settled upon Kilby and Noyce as co-inventors. Kilby took home the part of the 2000 Nobel Prize relating to integrated circuits, but Kilby did mention Noyce in his acceptance speech.
So Much Moore Than Before
Although Noyce’s pioneering model is still used today, the capacity of microchips has grown exponentially. In 1965, Noyce’s colleague, Gordon Moore, famously predicted that the number of transistors and corresponding processing power in a circuit would double roughly every year for 10 years. In 1975 he revised it to every two years. Although Moore made the prediction partly to encourage more sales of Fairchild Semiconductor chips, the engineers at Fairchild made it a goal to make sure Moore was right.
Moore’s prediction, which came to be known as Moore’s Law, was prescient well beyond a few decades. In 1959, Noyce’s circuit contained one transistor. Today, microchips contain hundreds of millions.
- The Silicon Engine: A Timeline of Semiconductors in Computers. Online Exhibit of the Computer History Museum.
- The History of the Integrated Circuit. Official website of The Nobel Prize.
- From Sand to Circuits. Official website of the Intel Museum.
- Tracing Silicon Valley's Roots, by Leslie Berlin. San Francisco Chronicle, September 30, 2007.
- History & Heritage. Official website of Fairchild Semiconductor.
- Integrated Circuit. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Accessed February 5, 2016.
- Moore’s Law. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Accessed February 5, 2016.
- Moore's Law Exhibit at the Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View, CA 94043.
- The Nobel Prize in Physics. Nobelprize.org website.
- Turning Potential into Realities: The Invention of the Integrated Circuit, by Jack S. Kilby. Nobel Lecture, December 8, 2000.