The Computer History Museum is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the integrated circuit, pictured above, with a multimedia exhibit called “The Silicon Engine” to explain why many claim the IC as one of mankind’s greatest and most important inventions ever.
Using oral histories from those who experienced the creation and development of the integrated circuit, the Computer History Museum compiled a documentary on this invention that irrefutably changed the world. The year-long exhibit will feature examples of early transistors, the vacuum tubes they replaced, and early integrated circuits, as well as explaining who was behind the inventions, especially the so-called “Traitorous Eight” engineers that largely developed the IC back in 1959.
After departing from the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, engineer Jean Hoerni and the rest of the “Traitorous Eight” moved to Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957. There, Hoerni developed the planar process which would become the foundation for the integrated circuit. The planar process involves using an oxide layer to protect the joining of the p-n semiconductors on a silicon chip, named because of the flat surface in which it results. The planar process is more electrically efficient than the then-common method of stripping the oxide layer for fear of contamination, but more importantly, the design allowed for a complete circuit to be built on a silicon chip.
Later in 1959, fellow “Traitorous Eight” member Robert Noyce demonstrated that the combination of the oxide coating and the flat surface allowed for a complete integrated electrical circuit, with diodes, transistors, resistors and capacitors, to be built within a planar chip. Simultaneously, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments independently developed a similar idea based on the planar process, though his was based on a germanium chip, rather than Noyce’s silicon. This new integrated circuit, called the “monolithic integratic chip,” is the basis for pretty much everything we love today, including computers, radio, television, audio equipment, cars and anything else that uses a microchip.
It’s no exaggeration to call the IC an invention that profoundly changed the world. Microchip technology has exploded since its invention 50 years ago, and few (if any) other inventions have become so essential worldwide in such a short amount of time. The technology is kind of tough to wrap your mind around, but the Computer History Museum’s exhibit sounds like an illuminating look at how Silicon Valley and our favourite hobby began. [Computer History Museum]