Be careful what you put on your chips…

Image etched onto a UTMC 5962R9657101VXC chip

Image etched onto a UTMC 5962R9657101VXC chip

A curious article at Wired.com about microscopic ‘doodles’ left by integrated circuit designers put me in mind of a day back in 1986 when an idle doodle on an integrated circuit led to the theft of my wallet. 😦

I was 26, and had just finished my PhD on the electronic properties of potassium metal. I decided to break out into a new research area and chose to build a micro-calorimeter, a device consisting of a sample holder, a heater and a thermometer. The idea was to supply a known amount of heat energy to a sample of some material under investigation and then to measure the resulting temperature rise. Its a very simple measurement and a very powerful way of working out what is happening inside a material. But it is a difficult measurement to make, especially at temperatures close to absolute zero. The innovation of this technique was to make the heater, thermometer and sample holder out of a single integrated circuit chip.

Because this was a non-standard device, I had to design everything myself at a fancy design centre on the top floor of the engineering department of UCL. Afterwards they gave me a plan of my 3 mm x 3 mm chip blown up to 1 metre x 1 metre! I was really amazed by this and I placed it on the wall of my office. I had been told that I had to put an identifier on each chip and so I put MIKE001. I thought it was really cool to have my name in writing 10 microns tall. It was very own chip-doodle.

And on that day back in 1986 in Bristol University, someone walked into my office and took my wallet. As he left, a colleague thought he looked suspicious and asked what he was doing? He replied – “I have just been to see MIKE”. No one one calls me Mike, and I conclude now that he must have seen this name written on the poster. My colleague assumed that he knew me, and let him go. Moments later he discovered I was not in my office, but it was too late.

So be careful what you put onto your chips, you never know where or when someone may look.

SOS Chips

Silicon on Sapphire Chips still on their wafer. When cut up each individual chip could be used in a microcalorimeter.

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