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Copyright

Title: Microchip
Author: Jeffrey Zygmont
Publisher: Perseus
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-7382-0561-3
Pages: 245
Price: $25.00
Rating: 85%

Microchips are one of the most ubiquitous yet unseen elements of technology. We all know theyíre around us, but we cannot see them. Youíre using many of them as you read this article on your computer screen, and if you have printed it out for easier reading, then you used even more with your printer. If you have a network, thatís a few more, and any other computer hardware adds more to the count. 

But microchips are used in more than just high-tech computing devices - in fact, there are probably far more low-tech items that use embedded microchips in your home: they are in things such as your TV, stereo, camera, telephone, your car (dozens of them); your kitchen is full of them - you find them in your refrigerator, electric oven, microwave, and many other appliances; if your children have any electronic toys they have a few; your home heating system may use a couple; basically anything that uses electricity these days probably has a microchip in it. 

The story of microchips is like that of many other technical advances or achievements. It is a story of individuals who had ideas, who worked to make them come true, and who built on previous technology, each new step adding to all that came before.  

The microchip was less an invention than a natural progression of technology - smaller electrical components were needed in the 1950s to fit in aircraft and spacecraft, but also for consumer goods. As transistors replaced vacuum tubes, doing the same job in a fraction of the space, designers began wishing for increasingly smaller components. But above all, the Cold War instigated scientists working on military  missile projects to seek out the smallest, lightest possible circuits. 

Electricity was, in the 1950s, what the internet was in the 1990s - a new technology with revolutionary perspectives, just waiting for people to give it direction.  It was an area where individuals and their ideas had a great effect on the direction of technology. When the first integrated circuit microchips were manufactured and sold in 1961, the great race for the ultimate in miniaturization began.  

Much has changed since those early days, but the fundamental design of the microchip is relatively similar to its earliest models. The main difference is the exponential rise in the number of transistors and other elements that a single chip contains. (Though, naturally, the actual design and physics of the transistors used has changed drastically as well, but the main advance has always been in the increased amount of power made available in the same space through an increase in the number of transistors.) 

Unfortunately, the book does not look closely enough at the actual process of developing and manufacturing microchips, and does not tell us much about the revolutionary designs that have been invented in recent years. Once Zygmont reaches the 1970s, and the introduction of the pocket calculator, the story shifts to look more at applications than the actual chip and what it contains. Here Microchip gets less interesting, as we shift to see the various companies involved in producing products, rather than the visionaries who created the heart of these machines. And Zygmont leaves off without even looking too closely at the personal computer; it seems almost as if he felt we all know too much about it for this to be interesting. 

Zygmont weaves an interesting story, but at times it gets confusing as he skitters backwards and forward attempting to set the scene for each event, adding context and background a bit late in the narrative. But overall it is a well-written story, which suffers only from a lack of balance - there is more attention to the early days of the microchip than the later days. At the end of the book, I canít help but think that the author ran out of steam, or that his publisher pushed him to meet a deadline. This seems like it is just half a book, and that the second part could have been very interesting. 

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.