Today, let's watch the microcomputer invent itself.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
That extension of your
brain, the computer on your desk, is changing human
history as dramatically as harnessing fire once
did. The programmable computer, first conceived by
Babbage in the 1830s, wasn't finally
built until the 1930s. At first, we used
fragile radio tubes in its logic circuits. Soon
after WW-II, we figured out how to replace those
bulky and failure-prone tubes with the new
transistors. Then the real fun could begin.
Those computers were huge, isolated machines. In
1943 Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said, "I think
there's a world market for maybe five computers."
With that kind of thinking, no one paid much
attention in 1952 when a British scientist named
It seems now possible to envisage electronic
equipment in a solid block with no connecting
wires. The block may consist of layers of
insulating, conducting, rectifying and amplifying
materials, [and] electrical junctions.
The subtle meaning of that remark came clear as
computers grew more complex. When an electronic
element in a computer had, say, one chance in ten
thousand of failing during a day's use, and the
computer had ten thousand elements, maintenance
became a nightmare.
Dummar's idea of casting a set of electronic
functions into one monolithic electric element
stood to vastly reduce the rate of failures. In
July 1958 Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments finally
created such an integrated circuit. A few months
later, Robert Noyce, head of Fairchild
Semiconductor Corporation, created a slightly
better version, independently. And a patent war was
After dumping money into the courts for years,
Fairchild and TI saw how foolish combat was. They
agreed to forget the lawyers and share the idea.
Kilby and Noyce acknowledged one another's
contributions, and life went on. It was a very wise
thing to do.
By 1969 both Fairchild and TI had managed to put
complete central processing units on single chips.
Then Noyce formed a new company, INTEL, for
INTegrated ELectronics, and he
started producing whole computer motherboards.
Costs plunged, but we still didn't see where all
this was going.
In 1977 the president of Digital Equipment Company
could still say, "There's no reason people would
want computers in their homes." Then new kinds of
software made it possible for you and me to use our
computers without writing their programs. And
computers promptly did enter our homes --
and the closest quarters of our daily lives, as
So the computer was the fruit of a wisdom formed
not by the industry, nor the inventor, nor the
consumer. It is a wisdom that rises out of all
three -- in concert with the machine itself.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds