Remembering the invention that changed the world - Embedded.com

Remembering the invention that changed the world

I came to the United States from Vietnam with my family 33 years ago, full of hope for a new life that I was certain would play out on a soccer field. At the age of 13, I had dreams that even the Vietnam War couldn't extinguish.

But as I grew older, my dreams changed. Technology grabbed my attention: first, PCs and cell phones and, later, DVDs, iPods, and the Internet. Soccer inevitably took a back seat to electrical engineering, a career path that I owe to man who, in 1958, brought a dream of his own to life.

Fifty years ago, Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit, and practically everything we touch, do, and take for granted today has his fingerprint on it, from your toaster and microwave oven to your grocer's product scanner and doctor's diagnostic equipment. It's hard to imagine life today–and tomorrow–without Jack's chip.

As an electrical engineer in TI's DSP division, I'm proud to be a part of Mr. Kilby's legacy. For nearly 80 years, TI has been at the center of innovation, building on the past to shape a better future.

I regard Mr. Kilby as a genuine hero. Although his career achievements include a Nobel Prize and a place in the same National Inventors Hall of Fame as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, his story remains a well-kept secret. Yet his sliver of germanium, no bigger than a paperclip, changed the world.

When I enrolled in one of the world's top engineering schools, the University of Illinois, I didn't know Mr. Kilby. But, as I soon discovered, he had also roamed the same campus decades earlier.

There, I learned the nuts and bolts of engineering, which allowed me to understand today's applications and tomorrow's possibilities. It was also there that I learned of Mr. Kilby's story, which inspired me to continue his legacy of creativity and seek ways to push his invention even further.

I first applied Mr. Kilby's invention to a college design for an FM radio receiver. At the time, I didn't realize that his invention had made my design possible. Today, my three children cherish their Nintendos and Gameboys; but more importantly, they know who made them possible.

Education nurtured Mr. Kilby's curiosity and ideas about electronics. Ironically, his invention eventually made possible one of the greatest educational resources of this century: the Internet and its vast knowledge repository. My children, perhaps like yours, simply snap at their keyboards and set the thousands of integrated circuits inside a PC whirring to retrieve the information. In fact, my 17-year-old daughter routinely taps into the electronic ether and does computer programming in the hopes of one day turning her interest in engineering into a profession, just like her dear old dad.TI has given me the opportunity to nurture my creativity into what Mr. Kilby called “practical realities.” I have 21 issued patents and invented many techniques used in today's computers and high-definition TVs. I thank Mr. Kilby for showing engineers like me the way. We continue to refine and advance his genius with our own creative flourishes to improve the way we live.

Today, the worldwide demand for ICs represents a $250 billion/year industry. It continues to feed technological revolutions in every industry, from aerospace and electronics to medicine and zoology. But better still, it's changing people's lives around the world, including those in such emerging economies as Vietnam.

In medicine, new applications are helping turn large imaging and ultrasound devices into handheld products. Researchers also are using ICs and neurostimulation to affect eating and smoking habits, and depression.

And consider, in this energy conscious age, how chips are powered: an electrical cord or battery typically does the trick. But what if the power was pulled from such nontraditional sources as kinetic or ambient energy? For example, future cardiac defibrillators planted inside a human body could be powered indefinitely by the body's own heat.

Where will such innovation come from? Most will sprout from the imaginations of young graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. We must encourage our youth to follow in Mr. Kilby's footsteps, embrace his passion for problem solving, and envision tomorrow's opportunities.

Just as Jack did.

Dr. Thanh Tran has extensive experience in audio, video, consumer PC, and multimedia systems design and is a manager of high-definition video-conferencing systems engineering at Texas Instruments. He has held other senior design positions at Compaq, ReplayTV, Eagle Wireless, Bose, and Zenith. Tran is an adjunct faculty member at Rice University where he is teaching digital/analog audio, video, and embedded systems design courses. He received a BSEE degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and masters and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Houston. His Ph.D. dissertation, direct sequence spread spectrum techniques, led to a patented clock distribution method. Tran can be reached at .

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