Jack Kilby, Touching Lives on Micro and Macro Scales

"For guys like me, the prize is seeing a successful solution," the Nobel winner said. (Texas Instruments)
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

For decades after Jack St. Clair Kilby got the revolutionary idea that has enhanced daily life for almost everybody on Earth, people used to tell the inventor of the microchip that he deserved a Nobel Prize. He always scoffed at the notion. "Those big prizes are for the advancement of understanding," Kilby would explain in his slow, plainspoken Kansas way. "They are for scientists, who are motivated by pure knowledge. But I'm an engineer. I'm motivated by a need to solve problems, to make something work. For guys like me, the prize is seeing a successful solution."

As it happened, Jack Kilby did eventually win the Nobel Prize -- although the Royal Swedish Academy didn't award it until more than 40 years after his 1958 breakthrough and after he had received almost every other honor and award an engineer can receive.

But for Kilby, who died Monday at 81, the real prize was watching his "successful solution" to an engineering problem become a ubiquitous part of human life. In his soul, Kilby was an engineer, and proud of it. "It's quite satisfying -- hell, it's incredibly satisfying -- to face some important problem and find a solution that works," he said. "Yeah, scientists get the theories. But engineers make them work. And the engineer has the added challenge of cost, because if your solution works but it costs too much, there will never be any application."

Kilby expressed amazement at the vast range of applications -- calculators, computers, digital cameras, pacemakers, cell phones, space travel and so forth -- that have developed around the tiny circuit-on-a-chip that he devised when he was the most junior engineer at Texas Instruments.

"It's astonishing what human ingenuity and creativity can do," he said. "My part was pretty small, actually." Whenever people would mention that Kilby was responsible for the entire modern digital world, he liked to tell the story of the beaver and the rabbit sitting in the woods near Hoover Dam. "Did you build that one?" the rabbit asked. "No, but it was based on an idea of mine," the beaver replied.

Jack Kilby was generous and courteous in an old-fashioned way. Hundreds of young engineers have memories of Kilby's kindness, and I have some of my own. When I first called the great engineer out of the blue and asked if I might come to Dallas to interview him about the microchip, Jack readily agreed. Then he added, "Taxis can be hard as hell to get around here," and announced he would pick me up at the Dallas airport.

A few years after the publication of a book I wrote on Kilby and his co-inventor, Robert Noyce, Jack received Japan's grandest engineering award, the half-million-dollar Kyoto Prize. My family and I were living in Tokyo then, and one of my daughters, an 8-year-old budding scientist, was assigned to do a class paper on the famous man. As we sat in the restaurant at Jack's hotel, concerned PR types from the Kyoto Prize organization kept rushing over to say it was time for Jack's interview with this vast TV network or that national newspaper. Kilby, as always, refused to be rushed. "We can do the TV Asahi interview," he said, "after I finish talking to Katie."

What Jack liked best about the various awards he won was the chance to take friends and family -- two daughters, five grandchildren and his sister Jane -- to whatever city or country was giving him the honor. He was pained, however, when he tried to hail a taxi outside the Grand Hotel in Sweden and then discovered that the Nobel Prize people had expected the new laureate to ride around town in their limousine. "An incredible waste," he mumbled under his breath.

Jack became the toast of Texas Instruments after his invention of the microchip and his key work on the first major consumer application, the pocket calculator. But he turned away from all the raises and promotions the company could shower upon him and set off on his own in the 1970s. He decided that being a real engineer required the kind of relentless focus on a single problem that no big company could support.

He spent 30 years tinkering in an office beside the freeway in Dallas, producing a few dozen patentable ideas, but nothing very lucrative. Leaving the big corporate lab, he said, "was pretty damn close to stupid as a financial matter. But there's a lot of pleasure for an engineer in picking your own problems to solve. So I've enjoyed it."

After his wife's death decades ago, Jack became dependent on his lively, talkative sister Jane, who moved to Dallas to help out. She was the person who could always find his car keys and hearing aid. Jane Kilby died late last year, and Jack's decline in health began shortly thereafter.

There was a time when engineers who improved our daily lives and spawned global industries achieved enormous prominence and public attention. Thomas Edison was probably the best-known man in the world within 10 years of perfecting the light bulb. Henry Ford and his tin lizzie were recognized everywhere. Alexander Graham Bell was a household name long before most households had a telephone.

But Jack Kilby and his co-inventor, the late Robert Noyce -- two contemporary Americans whose invention is essential and ubiquitous -- never received that kind of recognition. Outside of the engineering labs, where he was recognized as an immortal, his name generally drew a blank. Which was just fine with Jack.

When Texas Instruments started promoting the integrated circuit as "the chip that Jack built," Kilby wrote off the whole campaign as "the standard corporate baloney." When a school board member in his Kansas home town proposed changing the name of Great Bend High to Jack S. Kilby High School, the school's most distinguished alumnus quickly scotched the idea. "The whole thing would be a lot of trouble," Jack said. "I'm not worth the fuss."

Jack did get a shot at big-time fame, when Diane Sawyer interviewed him for the CBS Morning News. Sawyer was peppy and excited; Jack was his slow, laconic self. When Sawyer noted that his invention had "kept the United States at the forefront of technology," Jack stewed over the idea for a moment and then said, "Well, I hadn't thought of it in those terms."

Sawyer asked, "Have you made money from this invention?" Jack paused again, and finally said, "Some, yeah." With that, CBS broke for a commercial and Jack's moment in the sun was over.

Except, of course, that his contribution to the modern world goes on and on. He never became famous, but he solved a problem -- an engineering problem of literally cosmic dimensions. For Jack Kilby, the engineer, that was enough.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company