Inventing American jobs: How small steps become big industries

Innovation is necessary to build new jobs to replace those lost in the recession. So how do you innovate? Consider the integrated circuit. It was just a matter of taking the next logical step.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Job creation relies on innovation. A laser blasts into metal at IPG Photonics in Oxford, Mass.

Innovation is a beautiful word. Innovators are rightly revered. We owe our jobs to them, build statues to them, read their books, and listen to their sage words. How do they do it? What special food were they raised on? Did they hear the angels sing?

Management gurus break down innovation into five steps or three paradigms or six PowerPoint slides. But the more you know about innovators, the less they seem like genius wizards with secret formulas. Which is good. It means innovation is something inside us all.

I’ll let Jack St. Clair Kilby be the example. Mr. Kilby was a man of few words. I sat down with him in Dallas in 1978 to ask how he had come up with his revolutionary invention, which even then – in the pre-personal computer era – had led to billions of dollars’ worth of new electronics and tens of thousands of new jobs.

It wasn’t magic, Kilby said, recalling a torpid August in 1958 when most of his colleagues at Texas Instruments had fled for cooler vacation spots. He was too new an employee to have earned time off, so he kept at his project, which was a problem that the US Defense Department had asked American scientists to solve.

The military had an overriding need to make things smaller. The warheads of ballistic missiles were packed with instruments. The transistor, invented in 1951, was a start. But cramming more and more gear into smaller spaces was a dead end. The ever denser ball of transistors, capacitors, diodes, and relays wired into nose cones was becoming a hot, messy tangle.

Did a light bulb go off, I asked. Kilby could have said, yes, he heard a fanfare of trumpets and felt the ground shift beneath his feet. He didn’t say that. Engineers don’t say that kind of thing. It just gradually dawned on him during that quiet August workweek, he said, that instead of thinking in three dimensions he should think in two. If the goal was miniaturization – smaller, tighter, denser – why not put everything on one surface?

Think flat, in other words.

The integrated circuit was a logical next step, so logical, in fact, that Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor decided much the same thing around the same time. In other words, the idea emerged from gradual, collective, and progressive thinking. Someone was about to take the next step. Kilby happened to be an excellent engineer who was stuck at the office with no distractions. He took the step for everyone.

Innovation is evolution.

For it, he was awarded US Patent 3,138,743, the Nobel Prize, and a slew of medals and honorary degrees, all of which he richly deserved. He went on to invent the pocket calculator and the thermal printer. But he always recognized that his ideas didn’t spring fully formed out of nowhere. He was a great engineer, a first-rate scientist, but he was no wizard.

When he had finished telling this story, Kilby reached across the table and picked up a weekly publication from the US Patent Office. Flipping the pages, he marveled at the inventions people come up with – electronics, rocket fuels, mechanical gears, toilet flushers. Next week, there will be more, he said.

Hundreds of flavors of integrated circuits have been devised since his. Many helped build the high-tech economy of the past half century. As the world struggles back from the depths of recession, the creation of jobs again relies on innovators like Kilby. One day, we’ll build statues to them and listen as they dispense their wisdom

But told honestly, their stories will not dazzle. They will probably sound like this: Know what can be known, keep at it, and if you are stuck in the office when everyone else is on vacation, make the most of it.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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