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Microchip (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Last week an engineer who brought us the information age passed away. Jack Kilby died at aged 81 after a life filled with inventions and honors, including in 2000 the Nobel Prize for Physics.

I only met Jack Kilby once, and very briefly at that, yet for years before that I'd told people he gave me the gift of dance.

Six years ago my wife and I joined a ballroom dancing class with the slogan "Go from two left feet to the dancing elite." As the class began I danced so badly that my wife looked at me and said "What is this? Am I dancing with Woody Allen?" Determined to join this elite I bought a metronome - and that's where Jack Kilby's invention of the microchip comes into play.

I looked for the metronomes of my childhood piano lessons - large pyramidal objects with swinging pendulums. just press a button and a chime beeps a waltz rhythm.

I tossed this tiny device into my breast pocket and practiced everywhere: I danced in the hallways at work, down the aisle of the library and even turned a head or two on the street. And thus I joined briefly that elite group of ballroom dancing people.

Moving from that large mechanical metronome to a tiny credit-card sized device really captures Jack Kilby's impact. His microchip removed mechanical devices from our world, reducing the number of moving parts and dramatically increasing reliability.

For example, watches no longer depend on clockwork, but run off a tiny chip. Open the hood of your car and you'll find little black boxes filled with chips, and not much you can fix yourself. The tuning knob on your radio has disappeared, and even musical instruments have changed from mechanical contraptions to synthesized sound. And today's huge airliners rely on "fly-by-wire" controls - fewer moving parts and fewer failures.

So, just as I joined that elite group of dancing people, I want you to join a select group: Only one person in ten thousand knows Jack Kilby's name - so join that group and celebrate the achievement of Jack Kilby whose brilliant invention spawned the billions of microchips that run our watches, cars, jets, computers, calculators, and .... metronomes.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises