The day only the newcomer didn't get a vacation

Jack Kilby (November 8, 1923 – June 20, 2005, Dallas, Missouri)

Jack Kilby, the man who invented the computer chip more than fifty years ago, was six feet tall, stocky, and squinted a little behind his thick glasses. He came from the agricultural state of Kansas, but spent half his life working in Texas.

Maybe that's why he spoke slowly and started all his answers with 'well…' and then said nothing at all for a long time. 'The Humble Giant', as his colleagues called him, the Humble Giant.

“We,” one of his retired friends told him several years before his death in 2005, “hang out and have coffee, but I hear you still go to your office at Texas Instruments.

What are you actually doing there?' 'Well,' said Jack Kilby, 'I go there for a few hours every week and mostly drink coffee there.'

The day only the newcomer didn't get a vacation

Kilby's father was an engineer in charge of a series of small power plants in western Kansas. From the age of twelve he was allowed to go on inspection tours. He must have been about fourteen when an icy storm knocked out all the phone lines and some of those power stations. Together with his father, he visited a radio amateur in the area, who made contact with other amateurs throughout the region. That was the beginning of Kilby's interest in electronics. He was not very good at math and failed the entrance exam at the renowned University of Massachusetts.

He had to get 500 points and only got 497. All his life he could remember exactly the algebra problems on which he had snapped. He then studied electrical engineering at a less reputable university.

Afterwards he was employed by a small company that manufactured hearing aids, among other things. There he learned that you could always make everything even smaller.

In early May 1958 he arrived at Texas Instruments. In July, barely two months later, the employees collectively received two weeks' holiday. Except Jack, who wasn't in the service long enough for that. The transistor was the great novelty of those days.

The main components of the early computer were vacuum tubes and transistors.

The problem the engineers mainly encountered was called 'the tyranny of numbers'. The vacuum tubes had a short life and became very hot. The transistors consisted of numerous connections that had to be made and soldered by hand.

Every soldering point was a source of misery. The components were numerically impractical to produce reliable, complex parts. Everything was too big, too heavy, too expensive and consumed too much electricity.

In the empty laboratory that summer day, Jack came up with the idea of constructing the whole of contacts and resistors in miniature, his own computer madurodam. He brought the whole of wires and resistors together in a single sheet of germanium the size of half a paper clip.

On September 12, 1958, he was able to demonstrate to his boss that it worked.

The following year, the computer chip or microchip was introduced to the public in New York. No one could have foreseen then that the thing would have such a colossal number of applications. Most surprised about all those chip applications was the inventor himself.

At that time he only thought of a system to make computers and televisions cheaper. Such a Christmas card that plays music was not necessary for Jack Kilby. A tie with a tune even less.

How did he go on? Developed in 1967

Pocket calculator in quotes, because the thing still weighed one kilogram. In 1970 Kilby established himself as an independent researcher. From then on, he concentrated mainly on the development of cheap solar cells. For six years he taught as a professor at the University of Texas.
In the year 2000, the American engineer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention… no less than 42 years after the date.

Kilby hadn't expected the prize anymore. In October 2001, the town of Great Bend, where he grew up, built a party. The board named a street and a square after him and plans for a statue were put on the table.

At his old school he gave a speech of exactly two sentences. 'How long have you been thinking about the chip', the students asked.

"A day or two," he said. "How does it feel to hang with a picture next to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the inventor museum," they asked. "It's very flattering, but it also makes a person very humble," says Kilby.

So the elderly engineer led a simple lifestyle as before. Those who wanted to visit him found him in the same house he bought in the miraculous year of 1958 when he came to live in Texas. He passed away in Dallas in 2005 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 82.