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The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the…
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The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a… (1985)

by T. R. Reid

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Technophobes might as well move on to the next review. I loved this book. It explained in clear, precise language how innumerable barriers were overcome by innovative and insightfully brilliant individuals to create a device that revolutionized our lives. I've always been fascinated by electronics, built my own radios and earned an amateur radio license in 7th grade, just because the subject and theory of how electrons move around to perform useful functions is intriguing. Reid has captured much of that fascination and translated it into a great story.

Before integrated circuits could be produced, the transistor had to be invented. Before that time, switching mechanism, required a vacuum tube to control, amplify and switch the flow of electrons through a circuit. It was the discovery that some semiconductor materials could be doped to have an excess of positive charges or negative charges that provided the breakthrough. A strip of germanium could be doped at each end with differing charges leaving a junction in the middle. The junction worked like a turnstile that could control the flow of current when connected to a battery. Variations in current across these junctions connected in the transistor formation could rectify (prevent current from flowing in both directions) and amplify. That's all that's needed to make a radio (I'm oversimplifying obviously) and hundreds of other devices. Transistors required vastly less current than vacuum tubes, were almost infinitely stable, were cheap and gave off little heat.

But, transistors required thousands of connections to the wires coming in order to make a useful circuit, and as demands for more complex circuitry arose the wiring became infinitely complex. This interconnection problem became a huge barrier that could have prevented the effective utilization of the advantages of the transistor

"You read everything. . . You accumulate all this trivia, and you hope that someday maybe a millionth of it will be useful," remembers Jack Kilby, one of the inventors of the integrated circuit. He also insists that he is not a scientist but an engineer. "A scientist is motivated by knowledge; he basically wants to explain something. An engineer's drive is to solve problems, to make something work. . . . Reid has elegantly interwoven the biographies of Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce. One of the delights of the book was learning how the two inventors thought, how they proceeded, and why they went in the directions they did.

Robert Noyce, founder of Intel, had developed a process to make transistors in arrays on a silicon wafer. They cut apart the transistors and then hired "thousands of women with tweezers to pick them up and try to wire them together. It just seemed so stupid." He, too, realized the tyranny of interconnection numbers. What they both came up with was the "Monolithic Idea." The notion that an entire circuit could be designed and produced on those silicon chips.

Obviously, there is little suspense in the story, but Reid captures and holds our attention. Both men accomplished the same feat at about the same time, approaching it from different directions. Kilby showed how the transistors could be placed on a single wafer and Noyce showed how the chips and circuits could be manufactured. Every transistor radio used the patent Kilby was awarded for his work. In so doing, he turned the future that Orwell had predicted in 1984 on its head. Instead of a monolithic centralization of power in the hands of a few computer elite who controlled all the computing power, "the mass distribution of microelectronics had spawned a massive decentralization of computing power. In the real 1984, millions of ordinary people could match the governmental or corporate computer bit for bit. In the real 1984, the stereotypical computer user had become a Little Brother seated at the keyboard to write his seventh-grade science report."

The social impact was enormous. Slide rules that had been ubiquitous were completely eliminated in just a few years by the handheld calculator that has become so cheap it is often given away in promotions. The Japanese gained virtual control over the memory chip industry because of the way they handled their work force. Americans had a monopoly until the 1973 recession. American companies typically lay off workers to save money during downturns. The Japanese try to keep their work force employed. This meant that when the demand for chips exploded, Americans did not have the capacity to produce enough to meet the demand. The Japanese, having trained workers available, met that demand and were able to produce enough at such a volume to keep the price so low as to inhibit any competition. That and their emphasis on high quality gained them 42% of the world market by 1980. The "Anderson Bombshell" report of 1980 (Anderson was a manager at Hewlett-Packard) that showed that Japanese chips were far more reliable than those made in the United States helped seal their market share.

It took winning the Nobel Prize for Noyce and Kilby to be recognized in the United States (Japan, a nation that honors its engineers, had awarded Noyce and Kilby numerous accolades over the years.) The final irony remains that in "our media-soaked society, with its insatiable appetite for important, or at least interesting, personalities, has somehow managed to overlook a pair of genuine national heroes- two Americans who had a good idea that has improved the daily lot of the world." ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
There were exactly three inventions in the last half of the twentieth century that have changed human history forever, and stand out above all the other inventions of that turbulent time. They were the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the polymerase chain reaction, PCR. The transistor was invented jointly by three physicists, the integrated circuit by two engineers, and PCR by a single chemist. Each of these inventions spawned literally thousands of others, enabling whole new industries that have changed human activities in fundamental ways that we still little understand and that are thrilling us still.
This is the story of the two engineers, Jack Kilby, a Kansan, and Robert Noyce, an Iowan, who together showed how to put all of the required components of an electrical circuit onto a single tiny piece of semiconductor. This made possible, among other things, the modern computer, GPS, satellite communications, the internet, and the cell phone.

Kilby and Noyce are, Reid informs us, modest and accomplished men, whose fame will live forever--heroes and role models for those who dream of contributing to progress of the human race. They are hardly household names like the currently fashionable politicos or movie, music and sports stars of the last ten minutes, and their reputations will struggle to be placed on the list of the great White men, so lately in retreat before the hucksters of multiculturalism, laboring mightily to promote the inventors of the traffic light, psychoanalysis, and peanut butter. Their story needs to be told, monuments to them need to be erected, and their fame taught to our young.

Reid has done us a great service by telling the story so well, humanizing these heroes, and we are indebted to him. Thank you! ( )
1 vote DonSiano | Oct 20, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375758283, Paperback)

They're everywhere, but where did they come from? Silicon chips drive just about everything that sucks power, from toys to heart monitors, but their inventors aren't nearly as widely known as Edison and Ford. Journalist T.R. Reid has thoroughly updated The Chip, his 1985 exploration of the life work of inventors Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, to reflect the colossal shift toward smarter gadgets that has taken place since then.

Satisfying as both biography and basic science text, the book perfectly captures the independence and near-obsessive problem-solving talents of the two men. Though ultimately only one of them (Noyce) ended up with legal rights to the invention, they shared a respect for each other that persisted throughout their careers. Since Kilby won the 2000 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work, the story is all the more compelling and intriguing over 40 years after the invention. Reid's work uncovers human dimensions we'd never expect to see from 1950s engineering research. --Rob Lightner

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:34 -0400)

Tells the story of how Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce hit upon the discovery that led to the development of the silicon microchip which revolutionized the global information industry.

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