Jack Kilby's career (see remembrance, page 1) spoke volumes about the electronics industry and the country in general. Gordon Moore spoke succinctly about it: "Jack Kilby was always an engineer's engineer."
Kilby, in his thoughts and actions, understood the nature of engineering and innovation, its collaboration, collegiality and competition. It is a humbling business on so many levels. Failure is a constant but vital companion to moving technology forward; and even the victorious know their innovations are simply bricks tapped into place for future masons.
When asked how he felt about his part in the invention of integrated circuits, Kilby said years ago: "Well, I don't know that I get credit for their profound effect. It's true that the original idea was mine, but what you see today is the work of probably tens of thousands of the world's best engineers, all concentrating on improving the product, reducing the cost, things of that sort."
Kilby had the idea, but Bob Noyce and Jean Hoerni made the technology and, therefore, the business scalable. Kilby acknowledged that in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2000.
"While Robert and I followed our own paths, we worked hard together to achieve commercial acceptance for integrated circuits. If he were still living, I have no doubt we would have shared this prize," he said.
Electronics has its Jerry Sanders, its Steve Jobs, its Carly Fiorina. They bring a brashness and a flair to the marketing of technology that often can barely be grasped by the very people who consume it. But they do not comprise the soul of innovation. That quality belongs to the people who design, test, debug, invest in, counsel, take risks in, manage, cajole and architect our future.
But then you knew that.
When one great innovator calls another an engineer's engineer, you know what that means. When Kilby responds to a question about what he did after learning he won the Nobel Prize by saying, "I made coffee," you know what he means.
It's too bad the rest of the world doesn't get it. When Kilby's death was announced, it wasn't picked up by the wires for hours. Instead, the lead online stories were about the finding of a lost hiker, a bottle thrown at an actor and whether a little sun on the skin isn't so bad for you after all. The stories were delivered using technology brought to us by Kilby, Noyce, Moore, Hewlett-Packard and tens of thousands of others over the past 50 years.
Kilby, a giant physically and historically, would have shrugged his big shoulders. The innovator, perhaps wondering why Kilby's obituary was buried inside his local paper, would nevertheless pour the last bit of coffee into his traveling mug, get in his car and head off to work to resume the business of building the future.