Who Invented the Microchip?

The process of making microchips

Computer chip
Steven Weinberg/ Stone/ Getty Images

A microchip, smaller than your fingernail, contains computer circuitry called an integrated circuit. The invention of the integrated circuit stands historically as one of the most important innovations of mankind. Almost all modern products use chip technology.

The pioneers known for inventing microchip technology are Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce. In 1959, Kilby of Texas Instruments received a U.S. patent for miniaturized electronic circuits, and Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation received a patent for a silicon-based integrated circuit.

What Is a Microchip?

A microchip is manufactured from a semiconducting material such as silicon or germanium. Microchips are usually used for the logic component of a computer, known as the microprocessor, or for the computer memory, also known as RAM chips.

The microchip can contain a set of interconnected electronic components such as transistors, resistors and capacitors that are etched or imprinted on a tiny, wafer-thin chip.

An integrated circuit is used as a controller switch to perform a specific task. The transistor in the integrated circuit acts like an on and off switch. The resistor controls the electricity current that moves back and forth between the transistors. The capacitor collects and releases electricity, while a diode stops the flow of electricity.

How Microchips Are Made

Microchips are built layer by layer on a wafer of a semiconductor material, like silicon. The layers are built by a process called photolithography, which uses chemicals, gases and light.

First, a layer of silicon dioxide is deposited on the surface of the silicon wafer, then that layer is covered with a photoresist. A photoresist is a light-sensitive material used to form a patterned coating on a surface using ultraviolet light. The light shines through the pattern, and it hardens the areas exposed to the light.

Gas is used to etch into the remaining soft areas. This process is repeated and modified to build the component circuitry.

Conducting paths between the components are created by overlaying the chip with a thin layer of metal, usually aluminum. The photolithography and etching processes are used to remove the metal leaving only the conducting pathways.

Uses of the Microchip

Microchips are used in many electrical devices besides a computer. In the 1960s, the Air Force used microchips to build the Minuteman II missile. NASA purchased microchips for their Apollo project.

Today, microchips are used in Smartphones that allow people to use the Internet and have a telephone video conference. Microchips are also used in televisions, GPS tracking devices, identification cards as well as medicine, for the speedier diagnosis of cancer and other diseases.

More About Kilby and Noyce

Jack Kilby holds patents on more than 60 inventions and is also well known as the inventor of the portable calculator in 1967. In 1970, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.

Robert Noyce, with 16 patents to his name, founded Intel, the company responsible for the invention of the microprocessor in 1968.