An integrated circuit or monolithic integrated circuit is a set of electronic circuits on one small flat piece of semiconductor material, normally silicon. The integration of large numbers of tiny transistors into a small chip resulted in circuits that are orders of magnitude smaller, cheaper, and faster than those constructed of discrete electronic components. The IC’s mass production capability, reliability and building-block approach to circuit design ensured the rapid adoption of standardized ICs in place of designs using discrete transistors. ICs are now used in virtually all electronic equipment and have revolutionized the world of electronics. Computers, mobile phones, and other digital home appliances are now inextricable parts of the structure of modern societies, made possible by the small size and low cost of ICs.
ICs were made possible by experimental discoveries showing that semiconductor devices could perform the functions of vacuum tubes, and by mid-20th-century technology advancements in semiconductor device fabrication. Since their origins in the 1960s, the size, speed, and capacity of chips has increased enormously, driven by technical advances that allow more and more transistors on chips of the same size – a modern chip may have several billion transistors in an area the size of a human fingernail. These advances, roughly following Moore’s law, allow a computer chip of 2016 to have millions of times the capacity and thousands of times the speed of the computer chips of the early 1970s.
The idea of the integrated circuit was conceived by Geoffrey Dummer (1909–2002), a radar scientist working for the Royal Radar Establishment of the British Ministry of Defence. Dummer presented the idea to the public at the Symposium on Progress in Quality Electronic Components in Washington, D.C. on 7 May 1952. He gave many symposia publicly to propagate his ideas, and unsuccessfully attempted to build such a circuit in 1956.
ICs have two main advantages over discrete circuits: cost and performance. Cost is low because the chips, with all their components, are printed as a unit by photolithography rather than being constructed one transistor at a time. Furthermore, packaged ICs use much less material than discrete circuits. Performance is high because the IC’s components switch quickly and consume little power (compared to their discrete counterparts) because of their small size and close proximity. The main disadvantage of ICs is the high cost to design them and fabricate the required photomasks. This high initial cost means ICs are only practical when high production volumes are anticipated.