Integrated circuits, also called microelectronic circuits, microchips, or just “chips,” are assemblies of electronic components fabricated as a single unit, in which miniaturized active devices like transistors and diodes, and passive devices like capacitors and resistors, as well as their interconnections, are built onto a thin substrate of semiconductor material, usually silicon. The resulting circuit is a small “chip,” which can be as small as a few square centimeters, while the individual components can be microscopic in size.
Integrated circuits have their origins with the invention of the transistor in 1947 by William B. Shockley’s team at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company’s Bell Laboratories. Shockley’s team found that in the right circumstances, electrons form barriers at the surface of certain crystals, and discovered how to control the flow of electricity through the crystal by manipulating this barrier. Controlling electron flow through a crystal enabled the creation of a device that could perform electrical operations like signal amplification, which were previously performed by vacuum tubes. This lead to the creation of electronic devices called solid-state electronics, which are sturdier, easier to work with, more reliable, and less expensive than vacuum tubes.
In 1958, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor independently came to the same conclusion of how to reduce circuit size. By arranging thin paths of metal (usually aluminum or copper) on the same piece of material as their devices, they created wires for electrons to flow, allowing an entire circuit to be “integrated” onto a single piece of material. Thus, they are called integrated circuits, and can contain hundreds of thousands of individual transistors on a single piece of material the size of a pea.
There are several basic types of integrated circuits. Analog, or linear circuits, use only a few components, and are some of the simplest integrated circuits. They typically used in devices that collect signals from the environment, or send them back out the environment. Microphones, for example, convert fluctuating sounds into electrical signals of varying voltage. Microphones, for example, convert fluctuating sounds into electrical signals of varying voltage. An analog circuit modifies the signal, such as by amplifying it or filtering out unwanted noise. The signal is then fed back to a loudspeaker, which reproduces the tones picked up by the microphone. Another typical use for analog circuits is to control devices that respond to changes in the environment, such as a temperature sensor for a thermostat.
A digital circuit, meanwhile, accepts only voltages of a given specific value. Circuits that use only two circuits are known as binary circuits, and have an “on” and “off” state used to represent 1 and 0, or true and false. These elements are the basis for binary coding, which is the principle upon which all modern digital computers and associated devices function.
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