Chips with everything – 50 years of a giant leap for mankind
TO predict and then plan for the future, you have to understand what’s going on right now. To get to grips with the present, you need to comprehend what happened in the past. This may well be the value of studying history and nowhere is this more relevant than in the way we live at home.
Today, like it or not, our homes are full of microchips (microprocessors or microcontrollers or silicon chips, however you prefer to call them as well as their more recent hybrids the bionic chips). You probably already know they’re inside computers and mobile phones but they are also found in most of the simpler everyday gadgets and appliances around the house – digital weighing scales, clocks, microwaves, televisions, iPods and MP3 players, burglar alarms, central heating controls, toys and games, washing machines, remote controls and just about anything with a digital display.
Our cars are full of them and are activated from the moment the “plip” is pressed to unlock the doors to the time the engine is switched off. Offices, factories and warehouses could barely operate without them.
Without microchips, credit card transactions would have to be authorised and processed with a telephone call to a computer centre but since most phones have a chip or two inside them, you wouldn’t be able to make the call and even if you could, the processing centre wouldn’t be able to check anything anyway. You’ll find chips galore in post offices, railway stations and airports where they also operate communication and transport systems and are needed to process our monthly pay packets.
You rarely see them but they’re everywhere. Indeed, if they all failed, then the modern world as we know it would implode and collapse. Yet remarkably, they have only been around for fifty years or so. In fact, it was on September 12, 1958 that Jack Kilby, working for Texas Instruments, demonstrated the first integrated circuit that led the way forward for the mass production of chips. However, without the Apollo space programme, it is doubtful that their development would have been so rapid.
In April 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, succeeded in becoming the first man to fly in space and the following month, President Kennedy promised that by the end of the 1960s, America would send a man to the moon. At the peak, 400,000 people were employed on various aspects of the Apollo programme and many projects within it were dependent on the speedy advances in the production of microchips.
On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched and four days later, the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic moon landing, taking “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” They weren’t referring to the development and application of the microchip but these early chips and their more advanced descendants have become an even more enduring leap. After all, only 12 people have ever landed on the moon and nobody since 1972, but nowadays, everything comes with “chips.”
Because we can’t see them, we generally don’t think about them nor do we consider just how much they have affected our daily lives. However, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the day that the lunar module (the “Eagle”) landed on the moon, Buzz Aldrin has designed a special, limited edition pen called “Rocket Hero”. It’s been an extra year arriving and is an interesting digression for a West Point graduate, mechanical engineer, doctor of astronautics and author of a couple of children’s books.
While this pen is clearly intended to celebrate his great achievement along with the rest of the team involved in Apollo, it also emphasises that without the microchip, the whole exercise may never have got off the ground. Indirectly, therefore, this pen is also a celebration of the microchip itself. Without the microchip, the world that we know today would be a very different place but the moon would be just the same as it was before 1969.
Robin and Pat Silver are owners of The Home at Salts Mill, Saltaire. www. thehomeonline.co.uk
ROCKET MAN: “Buzz” Aldrin’s signature pen and case.