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World’s first microchip fails to reach minimum price at Christie’s auction

Kilby Microchip

Image courtesy Christie's

A huge piece of computer science history has ultimately come up short — on the auction block.

The world’s first integrated circuit, manufactured in 1958 by Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby, went up for auction this week at Christie’s.  Valued by the auction house at $1 to $2 million, the microchip is considered the original ancestor of all integrated circuits in use today, paving the way for the modern computer; it also won Kilby the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000.

A tiny germanium wafer with gold wiring mounted on a glass plate, the microchip was up for auction along with a second, sturdier prototype and a statement from chip builder Tom Yeargan, detailing how he brought Kilby’s design to life.

“You can think of it as the birth certificate of computing,” James Hyslop, a science specialist at Christie’s, told Bloomberg. “The microchip is one of the most important stepping stones to creating modern computers.”

Yet, when it came time to bid on the historic invention, auctioneers did not value it so highly. Bidding only reached as high as $850,000, failing to meet the minimum reserve price.  Now, it’s not exactly clear what will happen to the chip; a spokesperson for Christie’s did not indicate whether or not it will go up for auction again.

Kilby’s chip isn’t the only one of its kind, as there are two other early microchip prototypes that can be found at the Smithsonian and Chicago’s Museum of Technology. Dag Spicer, a senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, predicted that the potential buyer pool for Kilby’s chip would be pretty shallow, as the cost is much too high for many museums.

“That price is in the stratosphere,” Spicer told Bloomberg. “I was scratching my head about who might be a potential buyer.”

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