October 9, 2001
Random House Trade Paperbacks
The Chip - How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution
While electrical engineering and physics are two fields I have little formal education in, I’ve always enjoyed learning more about them, especially as they pertain to computers. So I picked up The Chip with the hopes of learning more about the inner workings of microchips as well as the people who helped create what is arguably the greatest invention of the 20th century. I was not disappointed. The Chip managed to find a good balance between the technical and the narrative to craft an engaging story. While there were some missed opportunities to dive deeper into the technical, the primary goal of this book was to offer a historical perspective on the evolution of a critical piece of technology and to that it definitely delivered.
The Chip follows Jack Kilby, an electrical engineer at Texas Instruments, and Robert Noyce, the eventual co-founder of Intel, in a race to develop, patent, and monetize a solution to the tyranny of numbers problem that was plaguing electronics at the time. In 1959, both of these men had the “monolithic idea”, coming to the realization that multiple devices could be connected on a single piece of silicon in order to make interconnections part of the manufacturing process to drastically reduce the cost, weight and size of each element. The microchip was born.
From there the book follows each individual’s respective company’s rush to get a patent out on this groundbreaking invention and the ensuing decade long legal battle over patent rights. By the time the patent fight was officially resolved (going to Noyce, though Jack Kilby did end up getting a Noble Prize for his part), however, the production of semiconductor chips was already a multi-billion dollar industry. Initially the microchip struggled for a few years while the industry developed the machinery to properly mass produce the circuits, requiring the chips that were produced to be sold at a price that was cost-prohibitive for any kind of consumer product. Fortunately, with the dawn of the space race, there was suddenly a buyer out there willing to spend any amount of money for something small, light, and reliable to send man to the moon. With this steady cashflow, production of the circuit steadily improved.
Gordon Moore, a friend of Robert Noyce’s, made an off-the-cuff prediction in 1964 that the number of transistors capable of being placed on a chip would double every three years. This glib predicition, now referred to as Moore’s Law, has held true all the way up to the 21st century. With the decline in production cost and the steady incline in capacity, the semiconductor industry has proven to be the most productive in American industrial history. The world as we once knew it was forever changed by this technology. Texas Instruments, in fact, made the first microchip run product to completely revolutionize our way of life: the calculator. Within the first decade after the calculator hit the market in 1965, it’s predecessor, the slide rule, had become nothing more than a museum piece, making calculators as pervasive in society as the modern computer is today.
All in all, The Chip offers a great perspective on how various inventions and discoveries have evolved overtime to culminate in this great triumph of human ingenuity. Reid makes sure to give credit where credit’s due, touching on all the greats including Edison, Turing, Boole, Shannon and more, and fitting them together to demonstrate how technology builds and evolves through the years. None of the technology we have today would be possible without the diligent work of those who have come before us. While I sometimes found the pacing of this book odd and the jumps between topics clunky (similar to this review), overall this book was a fun read and I highly recommend it.
Throughout my 10 year career I have worked as a web developer, systems administrator, software engineer, security analyst and now cybersecurity engineer. I currently develop software applications to automate security vulnerability and compliance scanning and reporting for a multinational financial institution.