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Monday, Oct 2, 2023

Computer Col


The U.S. Postal Service, in an admirable exercise in participatory democracy, is holding a national referendum to decide who and what will be the subjects of a new series of stamps. The Postal Service plans to issue sheets of stamps commemorating each of the last five decades of the 20th century. The Service will name about 30 nominees per decade, and we all get to vote on which ones will be honored with stamps.

So far, so good. But the Postal Service has just released the ballot for the 1950s (it’s available at any post office). The nominees for postal honor range from Dwight D. Eisenhower and Rocky Marciano to rock ‘n’ roll and “I Love Lucy.” In the category for “Science and Technology,” however, there’s a huge gap.

The Postal Service seems to think that the most important inventions of the 1950s were the polio vaccine, commercial jet aircraft, and the transistor radio. Each of these was a key breakthrough, but none ranks in importance with a product of 1950s American genius that has changed the world far more than those three. Somehow, the U.S. Postal Service has managed to overlook the towering achievements of Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce.

Late in the 1950s, Kilby, a Kansas native then working at Texas Instruments, and Noyce, an Iowan working for Fairchild in California, found a way to cram all the parts of an electronic circuit onto a chip of silicon about the size of a baby’s fingernail.

This “integrated circuit” better known today as the “microchip” is the key element of the personal computer revolution that we celebrate every week in this column. The same chip also serves as the brains, the senses and the memory of every modern car, camera, calculator, color TV, etc.

There are hundreds of microchips in your home right now, and a few dozen more in your garage. That American invention from the 1950s has spawned a global industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It is perhaps the most important single reason that our country has been able to retain its position as the richest nation on earth. And yet, our own Postal Service has ignored it.

If you have a personal computer, it is easy to see an example of this man-made miracle. All you have to do is take the cover off your computer and look at the circuit boards inside. (We know from our mail that many readers are scared to do this, but it won’t hurt your PC at all. The cover was designed to pop right off. So go ahead, turn the machine off and take a look inside.)

You’ll see a bunch of green boards with gold lines running here and there. These lines connect a number of black rectangles, sort of like plastic centipedes with copper legs. Those are the microchips.

Back when Kilby and Noyce first hit on this revolutionary idea, each chip had one electronic function it could add numbers, or count seconds, or make a beeping sound. Most of the chips you’ll see inside your PC today, though, have a vast range of different functions built in. That’s why computers have shrunk so much and why their prices have fallen so dramatically.

One of the Postal Service nominees for the 1950s stamp series is the UNIVAC computer, a garage-sized behemoth that was used for simple calculating chores before the microchip was invented. The UNIVAC cost $5 million and used the power of a locomotive.

Today, in the microchip era, a palm-sized calculator that costs $5 and runs on one battery has 1,000 times as much computing power. If the auto industry had improved at the same rate, a Rolls-Royce today would get 100 miles to the gallon and sell for about a quarter.

Even more amazing, the microchip is still being improved in spectacular ways, some 40 years after its invention. The major reason for the advent of the sub-$1,000 personal computers is that more and more functions of the computer have been jammed onto a single chip, dramatically cutting the cost of parts and assembly.

So go ahead and cast your ballot for the commemorative stamps of the 1950s. (The voting ends Feb. 28, and of course, you have to put a stamp on the ballot and mail it in.) But while you’re at it, why not add two write-in candidates: Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, the Americans whose genius gave birth to our computer age.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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