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What are integrated circuits?

 Company Resources About What are integrated circuits?

Our world today is populated by increasingly powerful electronic devices, which all depend on integrated circuits as their fundamental building blocks.

On April 11, 1984, Amstrad launched their first personal computer – the Amstrad CPC464. It became a bestselling product, with more than two million units sold in Europe. It brought computing to everyone, and owed its success to its attractive entry price, its simplicity to set up and start using, and an impressive specification. Amstrad founder Lord Sugar recalls how, during the launch, he showed the audience “two giant printed circuit boards (PCBs) covered with over 100 chips”. He continues, ”I then explained how the company was going to achieve a breakthrough in price by condensing the contents of these two PCBs into one tiny IC chip.”

The integrated circuit design was in fact a gate array, which was custom built to Amstrad’s requirements. But the real point of this little story – before getting into any detail – is to introduce the concept of loading ever more electronics functionality onto increasingly diminutive building blocks known as integrated circuits, or simply as an IC, chip or IC chip. It also highlights the impact of doing so; not just on design engineers, but on society in general.


What is an integrated circuit?
The semiconductor electronics technology that drives all the devices in our factories, cars, homes, and pockets dates from the early Fifties, when the first bipolar transistors entered production. Transistors were fundamental building blocks for logic circuits and computers because they could be used as binary devices that could be switched ON and OFF. They were equally useful in analog circuits such as audio equipment or data acquisition systems because of their amplification capabilities.


The first electronic designs comprised transistors and other discrete components, including diodes, capacitors, resistors, and inductors, assembled onto a PCB which could provide electrical connections between the components as well acting as a mounting base. Simple circuits could be interconnected to achieve larger and more complex functions – but as complexity increased, so did cost, size, temperature, reliability issues and manufacturing challenges. This problem, sometimes known as ‘the tyranny of numbers’, became a technological barrier preventing the full potential of semiconductor technology being applied to more powerful and functional yet smaller devices. To move forward, there had to be a better way of building and connecting transistors in large quantities.

In the mid Fifties, when the world – and the military in particular – had realized the amazing potential of electronic computers, many scientists and engineers were looking for solutions that would not only work technically but could be produced profitably on a commercial scale. Against this background, the integrated circuit was the solution waiting to be invented.

Although there is no consensus on who made the integrated circuit a practical reality, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor are widely credited as two major developers of the technologies needed.
Kilby was working at Texas Instruments when he developed the idea he called the monolithic principle: trying to build all the different parts of an electronic circuit on a silicon chip. On September 12, 1958, he hand-built the world's first, crude integrated circuit using a chip of germanium (a semiconducting element similar to silicon) and Texas Instruments applied for a patent on the idea the following year.

Meanwhile, at another company called Fairchild Semiconductor (formed by a small group of associates who had originally worked for the transistor pioneer William Shockley) the equally brilliant Robert Noyce was experimenting with miniature circuits of his own. In 1959, he used a series of photographic and chemical techniques known as the planar process (which had just been developed by a colleague, Jean Hoerni) to produce the first, practical, integrated circuit, a method that Fairchild then tried to patent. There was considerable overlap between the two men's work and Texas Instruments and Fairchild battled in the courts for much of the 1960s over who had really developed the integrated circuit. Finally, in 1969, the companies agreed to share the idea .