Hardware

Back In History : The Discovery Of The Very First Silicon Chip For Digital Computers

Today, we use a lot of technology in our daily lives: smartphones, tablets, GPS, IoT, Internet and so on. But not long ago we had only computers and a couple of household electronic devices at home. Some of us have known this time. But only a few can remember further back when computers were not yet part of our habits. Let’s jump back in the 1940s when the very first computer was invented, up to the discovery of the silicon chip that revolved our daily lives.

Who Invented The Very First Computer And When?

Before entering into the story of the silicon chip discovery, let’s go further back in time to the invention of very first computer. The 1940s wttnessed an important revolution in matter of technology. It was then that George Stibitz developed the first digital computer in the history, named « Model K ». Although it was a simple relay based calculator who could manage calculations based on core binary addition, it was still, at the time, a proper revolution.

But don’t be mistaken, it was far away from what we know as the computers we use today at home or at work. It was huge, as big as a room, and super heavy, at least as much as a bus. It also used an incredible amount of power even for the mist basic calculations as it work on a vacuum based technology, that’s to say a million of little switches functioning simultaneously.

Later in the 1970, the vacuum tubes were gradually replaced by transistors which were much more reliable, smaller and long-lasting. This evolution gave confidence to engineers that they could develop an even better technology that could handle a much more important quantity of data in a smaller and less power-greedy device.

And Jack Kilby Discovered… The Silicon Chip

At the begginning of year 1958, The now well-known Texas Instrument company hired an American engineer named Jack Kilby, who was specialised in ceramic-based circuit boards and transistorized hearing aids. His goal inside the company was to solve what was then called « the tyranny of numbers », meaning that the more components there was in a circuit, the more difficult it was to fuse them together with only traditional wiring methods. To solve the issue, he managed to gather all circuit components in a single piece of semiconductor material made of germanium. Kilby tried his device with an oscilloscope and got a continuous sinewave. His idea was working.

On September the 12th of that year, the world witnessed one of the most revolutionary discovery in the digital world: the integrated circuit, also known as the silicon chip we use today in our everyday life. It was the launching of a new area of history that no one – not even Kilby – could have possibly expected. Not only was it so tiny, it also required very less power, lasted way longer and could deal with much more electronic functions. The next year, he patented his invention under the name of « solid circuit made of germanium » and it was only in the year 2000 that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his revolutionary discovery and his contribution to all further technology that could finally be developed thanks to it.

How Silicon Chips Propelled The Digital Revolution

Now let’s stop for a second: have a look around you and try to count how many electronic silicon chip-based devices you have around you. We guess that you don’t have enough fingers and toes to do the whole inventory. Phones, smartphones, tablets, GPS, IoT gadgets, household devices and so on… All of today’s far-reaching technology is based in it. When we think about it, it is crazy how such a tiny piece of electronics has transformed our lives. Most of our everyday habits are based on it.

But not only our everyday life. It extends to the whole course of history. Without silicon chips, NASA wouldn’t have been able to explore space, deaf people would not hear thanks to hearing aid devices, doctors wouldn’t be able to rely on medical machines to make diagnostics, the Silicon Valley would simply not exist.

A 2004 CNN Explorers special report asked about 30 000 people what was the most important technology of a 24 inventions listed. 24% believed it was the silicon chip. It placed above the internet, which got only the second position.