If it weren't for the microchip, your smartphone would be size of a building and need its own power plant to work. Thanks to the integrated circuit and its modern incarnation in the microchip, electronics are a bit easier to carry around than that, and this week, Christie’s put one of the very first integrated circuits up for auction. Designed and constructed in 1958 by Texas Instruments, it's one of the three earliest "chips" ever made and went on the block with an estimated value of up to US$2 million.
The first computers were massive constructs that were as much architecture as electronics. They relied heavily on radio valves (AKA vacuum tubes), which were large, bulky, and mounted on circuit boards. They needed a lot of space for air to circulate because each was as hot as an incandescent bulb and technicians needed easy access because they burned out so frequently. It was one reason why early computers were monsters that filled whole rooms and needed constant attention to keep them working.
The invention of the transistor in 1947 solved a lot of these problems, but wiring and soldering together the components was still a time-consuming and expensive process that resulted in devices that would fit on a pinhead today, but back then were the size of packing crates.
Printed circuits had been in use during World War II, and when the technology was released for civilian use, it produced another reduction in size as breadboards and wiring were replaced with conductors printed onto boards. The actual components still needed to be soldered in, though automated soldering processes were later developed. These printed circuits resulted in a dramatic reduction in the size of electronics from portable televisions to the infamous transistor radio.
However, it was the integrated circuit that was the big breakthrough. This represented the step that paved the way for our modern age of digital electronics. Instead of assembling circuits, it was now possible to build the circuit directly into the board, using the substrata to form the components and conductors. This meant that circuits could be made using photographic printing techniques, which put electronics on the road to the fantastic degree of miniaturization that’s been seen in the past half century.
Part of an auction of Americana, the device that was put up for bids this week is one of three circuits built for Texas Instruments by Tom Yeargan for researcher Jack Kilby between July 18 and September 12, 1958, and the earliest example of such a circuit in private hands. True, it’s not much to look at. To the modern eye, it’s more like a piece of cheap, badly-made jewelry than one of the century’s greatest technological advances, but you have to start somewhere.
The circuit consists of a germanium wafer about 11 mm long set with four gold leads and copper and gold wires cemented to a glass plate, and was inspired by the failed attempt to build a similar circuit by British engineer Geoffrey Drummer in 1956. In 1958, Texas Instruments put Jack Kirby on the job of finding a way to miniaturize circuits. After experimenting with a silicon base, he eventually came up with the first integrated circuit using germanium instead. In July of that year, Tom Yeargan was brought onto the team and built the first three prototypes based on Kirby’s designs.
The integrated circuits were very simple; just a flip-flop logic circuit, but they worked, and other circuits based on its construction went into commercial use in the early 1960s. In 2000, the Nobel prize in physics was awarded to Kirby, who gave credit to Tom Yeargan and technician Pat Harbrecht for the circuit’s creation. Kirby died in 2005.
According to Christie's, these first circuits cost US$450 apiece, while the modern ones have dropped so low in price versus power that a cost comparison is almost meaningless. However, its historical significance means that the circuit has an estimated value of between US$1 million and $2 million.
Christie says that it’s the oldest such circuit in private hands and may only be days older than the other two circuits in the Smithsonian and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. It was offered along with a prototype silicon circuit and a three-page statement from 1964 by Tom Yeargan about the history of the circuit.
The auction took place at Christie's New York on Thursday, but bids failed to reach the reserve. So it appears the circuit will remain in the hands of Yeargan's descendants for a little while longer.
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