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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK


UK missed out on microchip

The microchip industry is now worth billions

The microchip was invented by a UK Ministry of Defence scientist, only for the patent to be registered seven years later in the US, the BBC has learned.

The BBC's David Gregory: "A billion dollar idea"
Now the UK Government is planning to set up a special agency to ensure such money-spinning commercial ideas are not lost in the future.

Nowadays, the global microchip industry is worth billions of pounds but it all began in the 1950s as a spin-off from World War II.

Geoffrey Dummer and his small team of researchers, based at Malvern, Worcestershire, were given the task of improving the reliability of the Royal Air Force's radar equipment.

Silicon pioneer

Mr Dummer, now aged 90, has told BBC reporter David Gregory that in 1952 he came up with the idea of putting an entire circuit on a block of silicon half an inch square.

It was rudimentary but it was recognisable as an early microchip.

Geoffrey Dummer: "We had nothing to do with industry"
But Mr Dummer said MoD mandarins were unimpressed after a prototype failed and the idea went no further.

Seven years later a United States scientist, Jack St Claire Kilby of Texas Instruments, filed a patent for an almost identical device.

And the rest is history.

Now the UK Government is drawing up plans for a new agency that would develop and market ideas which are thrown up by the MoD's defence research wing Dera.

'Civilian applications'

Dera (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) has an annual turnover of £1bn and Under-Secretary of State for Defence, John Spellar, says: "We spend money on military research but very often some of the discoveries that we make are very applicable in the civilian market.

"What we've got to do is, rather than that being exploited by the electronics industry of Japan, we want to see that being developed in the UK."

Mr Dummer, who was awarded the MBE, says the new agency is 50 years too late.

"All these main ideas came out during the war years and had they been commercialised in the UK we would have been in a very happy state."

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