This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 7, 2017: Time with You

May 7, 2017: on this day: Geoffrey Dummer presents the concept of the integrated circuit

On this date in 1952Geoffrey W.A. Dummer (books by this author) first presented the concept of the integrated circuit, also known as the microchip, which is the basis for all modern electronic equipment.

Geoffrey Dummer was born in Yorkshire in 1909 and studied electrical engineering at Regent Polytechnic in London. He held a series of jobs in the 1930s, including a post with the Ministry of Defence; his group was responsible for the first radar screen ever built. During World War II, he trained American and Canadian forces in ground-based aircraft detection training. Throughout his career, he was always looking for a way to make electronic components more reliable.

The integrated circuit is an advanced form of the electrical circuit, which is made up of a set of components — a transistor, a resistor, a capacitor, and a diode — linked together in a variety of ways. The transistor, which controls the electrical power — turning it on and off — was a big advance over the vacuum tubes used in the first computers. Vacuum tubes are like light bulbs: they generate a lot of heat, and they eventually burn out. They’re also much bigger than their successors, the transistors. Early computers powered by hundreds of vacuum tubes were unreliable and required a lot of room, and the invention of the transistor in 1947 solved those problems. The transistor had a few problems of its own, though, since each connection in the circuit had to be intact for it to work, and soldering all the circuits required to power a huge supercomputer was a very big job indeed. It also took time for the signal to travel through all the wires connecting the various components.

Dummer came up with the idea of making the various parts out of a single piece of silicon, which would eliminate the distance between components, speed up the signal, and do away with the need for precise soldering. It would also be smaller, enabling it to be fit into much smaller devices. He presented his paper at the U.S. Electronic Components Symposium in Washington, D.C. He told his audience, “It now seems possible to envisage electronic equipment in a solid block with no connecting wires.” Dummer’s talk is considered the first public description of an integrated circuit. Five years later, Dummer presented a prototype of his idea, and tried to get the British government to invest in the integrated circuit, but to no avail. He later said: “The plain fact is that nobody would take the risk. The Ministry wouldn’t place a contract because they hadn’t an application. The applications people wouldn’t say we want it, because they had no experience with it. It was a chicken-and-egg situation. The Americans took financial gambles, whereas this was very slow in this country.” Meanwhile, American scientists beat Dummer to the punch, patenting their own circuit in 1958, and it would be years before the United Kingdom had a semiconductor industry. While Dummer didn’t get a patent for his concept, he did earn the title “The Prophet of the Integrated Circuit.”

Today, we rely on integrated circuits to run our computers, our phones, our watches, and our calculators. They’re also used in microwaves, TVs, stereos, cars, refrigerators, kids’ toys, and musical greeting cards. Pretty much anything you plug in is going to have at least one microchip in it.