An Interview With Jack Kilby
What are you doing these days?
I'm doing a little consulting. I'm somewhat retired, still a director of a company or two.
At the time that you invented the IC, did you realize the significance?
I think I thought it would be important for electronics as we knew it then, but that was a much simpler business and electronics was mostly radio and television and the first computers. What we did not appreciate was how much the lower costs would expand the field of electronics into completely different applications that I don't know that anyone had thought of at that time.
Is that surprising to you today?
Sure. It still is.
Can you give me some ideas of what you're talking about, things that have come about from the IC that you had no idea?
Well, the thought that everybody might have a personal computer at their desk or their home was certainly not on the mainstream of anybody's activity at that time. Things like electronic watches, calculators, all of those are examples of applications that were possible because of the lower costs.
Did you have any idea that you were going to have such a profound effect on everybody's daily life?
Well, I don't know that I get credit for their profound effect. It's true that the original idea was mine, but what you see today is the work of probably tens of thousands of the world's best engineers, all concentrating on improving the product, reducing the cost, things of that sort.
How far do you see it going?
It's not obvious that there's an end. I'm sure there is, but it's very hard to pick it out.
How did you come up with the idea?
Well, before I came to TI, I had been working with a company that made packaged circuits, so I was aware that there was a market for that kind of thing. When I saw the capabilities of TI, it kind of opened my eyes to the possibility of doing more on a single semiconductor wafer. So, TI set the stage for you and your idea to move forward. Oh, very much so. No, the idea occurred well after I had started at TI.
You say you thought it was important at that time. What was going on at that time in electronics to where you had this vision that we needed something much simpler, but much more advanced?
Well, the big products in electronics in the '50s were radio and television. The first big computers were just beginning to come in and represented the most logical market for us to work in.
Did it come to you easily, this whole idea of coming up with an integrated circuit rather than a transistor, something that would operate much more efficiently, less power, less heat involved, all that?
I think all of those advantages were apparent. It was a few years before we could actually realize some of them.
How do you envision life 20 years from now in terms of the advances being made in electronics?
Well, it's very dangerous to project, but it's clear that the existing technology has some more years to go. Somewhere in that 20-year period, I would assume that there will be some basically new approach that will begin to cut into it, but it's got a long time.
You feel like you're the guy that kind of got all this started?
Yeah. Well, the integrated circuit is 40 years old now and that's an incredibly long time in the history of electronics. That's longer than the vacuum tube lasted, for example.
Does it surprise you that it's still one of the main components?
Yeah, it's a surprise. I wouldn't have anticipated that.
At the time when you invented it, where did you see it going?
Well, the real story has been in the cost reduction, which has been much greater than anyone could have anticipated. And it's tremendously broadened the field of electronics. In 1958, a single silicon transistor that was not very good sold for about $10. Today, $10 will buy something over 20 million transistors, an equal number of passive components, and all of the interconnections to make them a useful memory chip. So, the cost decrease has been factors of millions to one. And I'm sure that no one anticipated that.
Was that one of your goals when you set out to invent the IC was to reduce costs, make things simpler?
Yeah, we expected to reduce the cost of electronics, but I don't think anybody was thinking in terms of factors of a million.
What are your thoughts about Texas Instruments naming this the Kilby Center in your honor?
Well, Texas Instruments has always been changing. It was really a very small company when I started and it changed very rapidly during those first periods. Today, you're talking about perhaps even greater changes, but perhaps still of the same kind.
What are your thoughts about how the company's doing now?
I think it's doing very well. I'm pleased to see the concentration on semiconductors. I think this will help.
Is it nice to know that you made one of the most major contributions in making Texas Instruments what it is today?
Well, there's a lot of water under the dam since that time and it's hard to take any direct credit for the TI of today.
You hold something like 50 patents. You've been given a National Medal of Science. You're in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Out of all these accomplishments that you've had in your illustrious career, what are you most proud of?
Well, all of these are based on a single event, the invention of the integrated circuit. The groups that have awarded them are all a little different. It's a little hard to single out any one for that, but I think the dedication of this building would have to go toward the top of the list. That's very nice.
Is the IC your greatest accomplishment?
Oh, by far.
What advice would you offer to young people today who are interested in electronics as a career?
Well, it's a fascinating field and it's one that's been growing very rapidly. I'm sure that the opportunities are at least as great as they've ever been. I guess my advice would be to get involved and get started.
It's still the industry of the future?
I think so, and still very promising.
If you were to ask a current Texas Instruments employee what one of the most significant company themes of today is, they say it would be change. In your day, when you first started at the company, what was the most significant theme at that time?
I think growth and change were probably the most important at that time.
What is the tyranny of numbers?
Well, in the early '50s, people could begin to visualize electronic equipment. It was much more complex than anything that had been realized. And if those equipments had been built with existing technology, they would have been too big, too heavy, too expensive, and use too much power to be useful. So that was collectively described as the tyranny of numbers. The number of parts that were required were just prohibitive.
Initially, how much information was an IC able to transmit compared to what it can do today?
Well, the first circuits were very crude. They would have, perhaps a few gates or perhaps be connected into a flip-flop, maybe a half-dozen transistors. Today, our bigger chips have millions of transistors, so there's been a tremendous increase.
On the invention of the hand-held calculator, which you had a part in, what do you think about it?
Well, it's been an amazing thing to watch. We began work on that to expand the market for integrated circuits and it was very successful. But again, that's a part of the cost-reduction story. The first calculators tended to sell for $400 or $500. Today, you can get a pretty good one for 4 or $5. And they're almost throw-away items.
Are you proud of that fact?
Sure. I'm glad to have had a part in it. I certainly can't claim credit for very much of that improvement.
What can you credit yourself with in the invention of the IC?
Oh, I think my work probably started a new way of looking at circuits and began a new field, but much of the progress since is not direct consequence of my work.
We all know about the issue of the co-invention of the IC. If you could write history the way you believe it should be written, what is the story you would tell?
Oh, I think there's beginning to be some general agreement on that now and it's not as controversial as it was a few years ago. Today, people tend to credit me with having the original idea and made the first circuits. They tend to credit Noyce with having made a major improvement with the use of planar technology, which tremendously expanded the field and contributed to the cost reductions that we're talking about.
They recently sent a probe to Mars that they're now able to talk to and move a little car around. How does it make you feel to know that without your invention, this would not have been possible?
Oh, I guess my feelings on that are mixed. If they had really wanted to do that, they probably could have done many of those functions with discrete components. Perhaps wouldn't have had the same capability, but it could have been done.
So, you're saying it was moving in that direction anyway?
There was a space program before there was integrated circuits.
But at the time when you came up with the idea for the integrated circuit, wasn't it a technological race and you knew advances needed to be made?
Space was of interest, but a major driving factor was the interest in the military, which had much broader, more diverse needs, more urgency with it.
So the initial idea was defense. Now that you've affected so many people's lives in everything they do in their daily life -- this camera, for instance, that's taking your picture right now --how do you feel about that?
Well, it's been very gratifying to see it spread out into so many different areas and so many different kinds of products. Like I said earlier, most of these were not anticipated.
What can we anticipate for the future?
I don't know that I'm very good at that. I'm sure there will continue to be exciting new products and major changes, but it looks as if the existing technology has a great deal of room to grow and prosper.
Do you see Texas Instruments as having a major role in that?
Oh, very much so. I think they now have a very good position. Their digital signal processing is right in the mainstream of the future development.
Is that the future?
I think it will be a major part of it, yeah.
How far can that go? Do you have any idea?
No. Well, that's a basic and rather broad technique that will develop it's own applications as time goes on. I don't really know what these will be, but I'm sure that there will be a lot of them because it is basic and powerful.
Is it surprising to you that that the catalyst for the DSP is the human senses, that's what they're using to base all this technology on and to get it to move forward?
Well, DSP fills a real need because it provides real-time processing. Most of the inputs and many of the outputs of electronic equipment are analog and have to be converted to digital so that the DSP structure is an ideal way to cope with that.
We have to move into digital if it's going to keep advancing?
Well, yes and much of the progress has been made in digital. But my point was that most of the inputs to electronic equipment are really in analog form. And DSP provides the technique to convert that and process that to more useful forms.
Will DSPs just make life easier for us as well?
I expect it will. I think it's already doing so. Things like cell phones are heavily dependent on DSP and they've made a major change in the way people communicate.
When and how did you become interested in electronics?
When I was in high school, my dad was running a small power company scattered across the western part of Kansas and they had a big ice storm that took down all the telephone and many of the power lines, so he began to work with amateur radio operators to provide some communications and that was the beginning of my electronic interest.
So, it was born out of an interest in helping people?
Well, that was why my dad originally made the contact. My own interest developed because I thought it was a fascinating subject and something I wanted to pursue.
Has it proved to be fascinating?
Oh, yes. It was a great choice.
Is there anything else that you've ever wanted to say about your relationship with TI?
I feel my story has been exercised very thoroughly and very frequently. I don't think there's any shortage of that, but I am truly honored by the dedication of this building and I think that's very nice.
What was Texas Instruments like when you started here in 1958?
That was a few months before you invented the IC. Well, TI, at that time, was a small company. In 1957, before I started, I think their total buildings were around $65 million. And that was made up of at least three basic business -- semiconductors, which were by far the fastest growing, defense and the geophysical work. So, by today's standards, even the semiconductor activities were very minuscule.
What do you think about TI's advancements over the 40 years since you've been involved with them?
Well, through much of that time TI's done a great job. They were the largest semiconductor maker in the world up until about 1980. I'm not sure that that can be re-gained again, but their progress in the last few years has been very impressive.
Where do you think TI stands in the world of electronics?
Oh, their numerical rankings by size, which would put TI around sixth or seventh. I think they've had more influence than that number would suggest.
What kind of influence has TI had on the electronics world over the past four decades?
Well, TI has been a major factor in shaping the development of integrated circuits and their R&D programs have been most effective and still continue to be to this day. And, up until a few years ago, TI's leadership in all phases of integrated circuit processing was obvious to everyone.
What do you think about TI's role in the development of the DSPs?
I think that's most promising. DSP is a very potent technology that has the ability to grow. It's also somewhat in the center of a number of things that will be useful to the company.
Can you talk a little bit about the technologies that can be developed in this building?
The semiconductor technology, in general, changed very rapidly in the 1950s. We went through, I think, six completely different types of transistor structures in that period from point contact to grown junction, alloyed junction, surface barrier, diffused base, and planar. This could be done in part, because the equipment was very inexpensive. Not much money was involved in tooling so that basic changes of that type could be accomplished. The equipment with which we built the first integrated circuits was very crude. We used film masks, conventional evaporators, beakers, to do the etching and things of that sort. And probably the most expensive piece of equipment that we used cost less than $10,000. Today, in a modern fab, such as the areas you have upstairs, the average equipment price is probably a million dollars. So, these changes have really been tremendous.
Is that one of the things that amazes you?
Yes, it really is. And the other change that I think is worth mentioning is that in the '50s, there were no trained semiconductor engineers. People were drawn into the field with a very wide variety of backgrounds, some physicists, some electrical engineers. One of the best designers that I never knew had a degree in paper making or chemistry.
Today, people tend to concentrate very heavily on a given area, metal etching or one of the types of lithography. Much less opportunity for a generalist than there was at the beginning.
What drew you into this field in the 1950s?
I was working for a company in Milwaukee that took one of the first transistor licenses from Bell Labs and went to a two-week course at Murray Hill and then went back to Milwaukee and started trying to make semiconductors.
You mentioned that now everybody seems to be specialized as opposed to broad backgrounds of the people in the '50s. Is that good in your opinion?
It's probably been necessary. It probably inhibits some types of innovations and invention.
Is that what inhibited growth in the '50s, that most of the people working here had such varied backgrounds?
I think the varied backgrounds in the beginning were a plus. It took a while for people to understand what they were trying to do and get started, but it did provide for a lot of new ideas.
What kind of companies call on you to consult?
Most of them are involved with semiconductors in some way or another.
Is it a global thing?
Almost all in this country.
How are we doing in the electronics field as opposed to, you know, we hear how advanced the Japanese are? Do you think we're still pretty competitive?
Oh, yes. I think the feelings about that have changed. Five years ago, people were crying and feeling the Japanese were about to take over the Earth. I don't hear that kind of talk anymore.
Why is that?
Partly, I think, because of the nature of their approach. They tended to concentrate on one or two products. They're very strong in memory. Didn't do very much in microprocessors or digital signal processing.
Do you think we lost that complacency and decided we'd better get on the stick?
Yes. And today, the American companies are beginning to concentrate in specific areas. Up until ten or fifteen years ago, TI felt that it had to be involved in every aspect of semiconductor stuff. Today, that's narrowed down.