The month after bringing home the Nobel Prize for Physics, Jack Kilby found himself back in the spotlight on Jan. 16, 2001 as the Texas legislature honored the creator of the microchip.
Everyone who has ever used a calculator, cell phone, digital camera, pacemaker or the multitude of other high-tech gadgets that present-day inhabitants of this planet take for granted owes a debt of gratitude to the unassuming genius who made it all possible. But he would have been the last person to remind anybody of that.
Although many sources cite Jefferson City, Missouri as his birthplace, Jack St. Clair Kilby clearly disagreed. In the autobiographical statement requested by the Nobel Committee, he wrote, “I was born in 1923 in Great Bend, Kansas.”
That explains why Kilby grew up in a small town in the heart of the Sunflower State, where his father owned a small electric company. “My dad’s goal was to do whatever it took to run his business and help people, but I thought that amateur radio was a fascinating subject. It sparked my interest in electronics.”
When graduation day rolled around at Great Bend High, Kilby already knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer. Even though his transcript was littered with mediocre grades, the college of his choice was Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
With high hopes of acing the entrance exam, the kid from Kansas took the long train ride to New England in June 1941. It proved to be a much longer ride home, after he failed to make the minimum score required for admission.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kilby enlisted in the Army. He spent the war far from the fighting repairing radios at an outpost on a tea plantation in India.
Like millions of other veterans, he took full advantage of the G.I. Bill attending the University of Illinois and obtaining a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He added a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, while working 40 hours a week.
In 1958 Kilby accepted a position with Texas Instruments and moved with his wife to Dallas. “TI was the only company that agreed to let me work on electronic component miniaturization more or less full-time,” he explained years later.
Transistors had replaced bulky vacuum tubes in the late 1940’s, but Kilby was obsessed with the revolutionary idea of going much smaller. He spent almost every waking hour pondering the problem he called the “tyranny of numbers.”
As a new employee with no vacation time, he had the new semiconductor building all to himself in the summer of 1958. That was where the stroke-of-genius solution came to him one day, and by September he had pieced together a working model of the integrated circuit or microchip which he successfully demonstrated for TI executives.
Practical applications were initially military in nature with the Air Force using the first computer equipped with Kilby’s silicon chips and also in the Minuteman Missile. The TI chairman then challenged the engineer “to design a calculator as powerful as the large, electro-mechanical desktop models of the day, but small enough to fit in a coat pocket.”
Kilby granted the boss’ wish, and the company started manufacturing millions of mini-adding machines. He followed that hugely popular device with the thermal printer, adding another patent to his ultimate total of 60.
In the 1970’s, Kilby took a leave of absence from Texas Instruments after assuring one and all that he was just a phone call away. For the next three decades, he was “Thomas Edison on North Central Expressway” relishing the solitary pursuit of any brainstorm – like generating electric power from sunlight — that popped in his head. But he did take an extended time-out to share his vast knowledge with students and faculty at Texas A&M as a “distinguished professor.”
The decades overdue call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences came at last in the fall of 2000. When asked what he did after learning the Nobel Prize would soon be his, Kilby said simply, “I made coffee.”
That comment was typical of the self-effacing, six-foot-six “gentle giant.” He even played down the importance of his part in the invention of the microchip: “Humankind would have eventually solved the matter, but I had the fortunate experience of being the first person with the right idea and the right resources available at the right time in history.”
Kilby hated being the center of attention. While in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize ceremony, he was told that instead of seeing the sights by taxi, a limousine would take him wherever he wanted to go. “An incredible waste!” the honoree mumbled under his breath.
That was why the school board in his hometown should have known better than to suggest renaming the high school in his honor. “The whole thing would be a lot of trouble,” objected the famous alumnus. “I’m not worth the fuss.”
Jack Kilby lived five more years as a Nobel Prize winner before dying of cancer at the age of 81. When it comes to Texas heroes, the scientist who changed the world is truly in a class by himself.