A whole generation does not remember a world without computers. But some of us still know that it did exist. They came into our life and changed everything. And what made this possible was the invention of the first digital computer by a man called George Stibitz and later on, the invention of the silicon chip by Jack Kilby. Let’s go back in time and discover their stories.
By Whom and When was the First Computer Invented?
If you try to imagine a computer looking like what they are today, you would be completely wrong. The first computer would probably not have fit in your room, and even if it did, you would not have had any use for it.
George Stibitz is the person considered to have invented the first digital computer. He did so in 1937, while he was working in a company called Bell Labs. The name of the machine was “Model K” and it was a relay based calculator able to calculate through binary additions. It may not seem such an important discovery today, but back then, it was literally a revolution.
If you wonder what it looked like, try to picture something that weighed as much as those London double-decker bus, took a whole room to fit in and was covered with millions of vacuum tubes (buzzing electronic switches). But if you want to see a replica of the real thing, you will find one in the Computer History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, another at the William Howard Doane Library at Denison University and inside the American Computer Museum in Bozeman in Montana.
It’s much later that the technology of the vacuum tubes was changed to transistors. They were much smaller and quite reliable. They came about almost 30 years after, when the need to manage a greater amount of data suddenly happened. The goals of the engineers who found that solution were to create something cost effective and small. In fact, one of them came up with something… minuscule.
By Whom and When was the Silicon Chip Invented?
Many of you may have owned a Texas Instrument calculator when you were studying mathematics in college. You should know that the man who invented that hand-held calculator is also the one who thought of the silicon chip.
Jack Kilby started working at Texas Instruments in 1958. He was hired to find ways to reduce the size of electric components inside calculators. Back in those days, the number of circuits that needed to be weld together was getting greater, not smaller, making the machines bigger and bigger. It is that challenge that pushed Jack Kilby to invent the silicon chip, which later in his life will win him a Nobel Prize.
So what was the solution to the problem of what they called “the tyranny of numbers”? To create and manufacture all of the circuit components in a unique semiconductor substrate; an integrated circuit which we all know today as the silicon chip.
Did Kilby have the slightest idea he would revolutionize and change the world forever? Probably not. But he did. Today, it is simply unimaginable to live without it. Otherwise, there would be no cell phone, no laptop, no space exploration, no TVs, no radios… And think of all the medical advances that were made thanks to it: hearing aids, medical diagnostic machines and so much more.
And now, this is all part of history: The experiment which put together a piece of semiconductor made of germanium and an oscilloscope showed that it resulted in a continuous sinewave, therefore proving Kilby’s theory. It resulted in reducing the size to extremely small, with the added advantage of being also cost effective; something the world of business really appreciates.
Something Minuscule (silicon chip) Changes the Course of History
There is no doubt that the silicon chip has made our world completely different than what it was before. For years and years, the capacity generated by the silicon chips inside computer has continuously risen. Now, we are getting to a point where we’ll need to find other solutions in order to grow more, because the power placed inside silicone chips cannot keep augmenting anymore.
What will come next? No one knows, but there is no doubt that something will. The race to making things smaller and smaller is certainly not over, especially in a time when ecology is occupying more space inside society. We will need to find new ways to reduce the waste and we will. But remembering how computers came to be what they are today is inspirational and no doubt will motivate a new generation of scientific researchers to continue building the future.
We will also need to go to Mars and beyond. Developing new technologies will therefore remain the key to achieving man’s wildest desires. Who will be the George Stibitz and Jack Kilby of tomorrow? It could be you!