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Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit, dies

Kilby built the first electronic circuit in which all of the components were fabricated into a single piece of material.

Jack Kilby, whose work on integrated circuits in the 1950s ushered in the digital era, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 81.

In the summer of 1958, while working at Texas Instruments, Kilby built the first electronic circuit in which all of the components were fabricated into a single piece of material. The device, about half the size of a paper clip, was the world's first integrated circuit. The microchip was later demonstrated on Sept. 12, 1958.

Jack Kilby
Jack Kilby

The prototype, which cut down on costs and engineering difficulties, paved the way for integrating electronics into a variety of devices. Prior to integrated circuits, engineers had to solder several parts together. Intel co-founder Bob Noyce came up with a similar integrated circuit a few months later.

The work, which Kilby performed during the two-week period at TI when other employees traditionally took a vacation, ultimately led to a Nobel Prize for physics in 2000. When the news was announced at the Microprocessor Forum that year, the surprised audience gave him a standing ovation.

The invention also jump-started Kilby's career. Over the next several years, he held several positions at TI and won a number of awards. He formally retired in 1970 from the company, but still served as a consultant. Between 1978 and 1984, he served as a professor at Texas A&M University.

"In my opinion, there are only a handful of people whose works have truly transformed the world and the way we live in it--Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Jack Kilby," TI Chairman Tom Engibous said in a prepared statement. "If there was ever a seminal invention that transformed not only our industry but our world, it was Jack's invention of the first integrated circuit."

Kilby, who stood 6 foot 6, grew up in Kansas and subsequently attended the University of Illinois. He went into the Army during World War II, but returned to Illinois to graduate in 1947. Upon graduation, he took a position with Centralab in Milwaukee, where he first worked with transistors, the building blocks for integrated circuits. While working there he also got a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin.

He came to TI in 1958, too late to participate in the August vacation exodus.

"I was sitting at a desk, probably stayed there a little longer than usual," he recalled in a 1980 interview that's reprinted on TI's Web site. "Most of it formed pretty clearly during the course of that day. When I was finished, I had some drawings in a notebook, which I showed my supervisor when he returned. There was some slight skepticism, but basically they realized its importance."