PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Fifty years ago, Jack Kilby, who grew up in Great Bend, Kan., took the electrical engineering knowledge he acquired as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin to Dallas, to Texas Instruments, where he helped invent the modern world as we routinely experience and manipulate it. Working with improvised equipment, he created the first electronic circuit in which all the components fit on a single piece of semiconductor material half the size of a paper clip.
On Sept. 12, 1958, he demonstrated this microchip, which was enormous, not micro, by today's standards. Whereas one transistor was put in a silicon chip 50 years ago, today a billion transistors can occupy the same "silicon real estate." In 1982, Kilby was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where he is properly honored with the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
If you seek his monument, come to Silicon Valley, an incubator of the semiconductor industry. If you seek (redundant) evidence of the federal government's refusal to do the creative minimum -- to get out of the way of wealth creation -- come here and hear the talk about the perverse national policy of expelling talented people.
Modernity means the multiplication of dependencies on things utterly mysterious to those who are dependent -- things such as semiconductors, which control the functioning of almost everything, from cell phones to computers to cars. "The semiconductor," says a wit who manufactures them, "is the OPEC of functionality, except it has no cartel power." Semiconductors are, like oil, indispensable to the functioning of many things that are indispensable. Regarding oil imports, Americans agonize about a dependence they cannot immediately reduce. Yet their nation's policy is the compulsory expulsion or exclusion of talents crucial to the creativity of the semiconductor industry that powers the thriving portion of our bifurcated economy. While much of the economy sputters, exports are surging, and the semiconductor industry is America's second-largest exporter, closely behind the auto industry in total exports and the civilian aircraft industry in net exports.
The semiconductor industry's problem is entangled with a subject about which the loquacious presidential candidates are reluctant to talk -- immigration, specifically that of highly educated people. Concerning whom, U.S. policy should be: A nation cannot have too many such people, so send us your Ph.D.s yearning to be free.