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A Detailed History of Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

A PCB Designer working with PCB layout design in 1990s

Table of Contents

A printed circuit board is a medium used to link or “wire” elements in a circuit. Printed circuit boards (PCBs) changed electronics in the 1940s. They made it easier to create and repair electrical gadgets by replacing tangled cables with clean, dependable boards.

Now PCBs are tiny, consisting of one substrate layer, fiberglass, coated with copper and solder mask. They’re produced at a much higher and more efficient rate than ever before and they are an important part of every electronic gadget. In the future, new varieties of PCBs, such as flexible and eco-friendly ones, will keep gadgets cooler and brighter. PCBs demonstrate how human innovation continuously improves our technology.

A Brief Introduction to the History of PCB

In 1903, German inventor Albert Hanson filed the first patent for a PCB-like device, he made for telephone systems. He was the founder of PCB.

Over the past fifty years, the scientific elements of PCBs have been measured on a tiny scale. During the 1960s, an ordinary calculator’s PCB contained about 30 transistors. Today, a typical computer’s PCB board has millions of transistors on a single chip. These advancements have made it possible to incorporate growing amounts of capability into ever-smaller gadgets.

1903: Start of Development

In 1903, German inventor Albert Hanson filed a patent for a groundbreaking device that featured flat foil conductors on a multi-layer insulation board, a design that included through-hole construction and conductors on both sides. This invention, developed for telephone systems, marked a significant step in the evolution of early breadboards and laid the groundwork for modern printed circuit boards (PCBs). Hanson’s innovative approach to electrical connections through perforations represented a major advancement in the field of electronics.

telephone in 1903
Telephone in 1903

1927: Charles Ducas's Patent

In 1927, Charles Ducas, an American inventor, got a patent for a new circuit board design. He used a stencil to print wires with conductive ink onto an insulated surface, creating an electronic path right on the board. This method, called printed wiring, was an early step toward the electroplating techniques used in modern circuit boards.

1929: Stock Market Crash

The stock market crash of October 1929, which accompanied the recession that followed, halted the development of PCBs. People had to focus on essential needs instead of new technology. This time brought an end to the Jazz Age and led to widespread poverty and unemployment.

Stock Market Crash of 1929
Stock Market Crash of 1929

1941: First PCB by Paul Eisler

The invention of the printed circuit board (PCB) is attributed to Paul Eisler. Paul Eisler, an Austrian engineer, is widely recognized as the pioneer of the PCB. He developed the concept of using a flat surface to mount and connect electronic components in the 1930s.

In 1936, Paul Eisler obtained a patent for his “printed circuit” idea, which involved printing conductive tracks onto a non-conductive substrate material. However, it took some time for PCBs to gain widespread adoption and become a standard technology in the electronics industry.

Paul-eisler-by-maurice-hubert
Paul Eisler by Maurice Hubert - Wikipedia

After the assault on Pearl Harbor in the last month of 1941, the United States Army recognized the need for enhanced communication technologies. This urgency led to the adaptation of PCB-like technology, inspired by a British device called the proximity fuse, which improved artillery accuracy. Around the same time, Austrian engineer Paul Eisler, who had fled to England to escape Nazism, made a significant leap in PCB development.

In 1941, he created the first functional printed circuit board by using copper foil on a non-conductive glass base. This innovation marked a major step towards the modern PCBs we use today, with copper layers on an insulating board forming the conductive paths for electronic components. In 1943, he introduced the first PCB-equipped radio that was used in military operations.

1950 to 1960 - After World War II - Commercialization of PCB

After World War II, as American servicemen returned home, there was a surge in domestic life and technological innovation. The 1947 introduction of PCBs by Bell Labs coincided with the Cold War era, where communication advancements became crucial amidst tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. These developments, paralleled by the rise of Elvis Presley and television’s popularity, marked a significant period for electronics. PCBs revolutionized space exploration, enabling lighter and more efficient spacecraft.

1947 Bell Labs - transistor and inventors - open the door to digital future
1947 Bell Labs - transistor and inventors - open the door to digital future

The Soviets led the charge with milestones like Sputnik in 1957, driving competition and further technological strides in PCB design through the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s and 1960s, PCB designs were double-sided, with equipment on one side and identification printing on the other. Transistors became available about this time, lowering the size of electronic equipment and making PCB assembly easier.

1960: Introduction of ICs in PCB

Integrated Circuits (ICs) were first introduced in PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The development of ICs revolutionized the electronics industry by allowing multiple electronic components, such as transistors, resistors, and capacitors, to be integrated onto a single chip of semiconductor material.

The first practical integrated circuit was developed by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments in 1958. Kilby’s invention laid the foundation for the miniaturization of electronic circuits and the subsequent widespread use of ICs in various applications.

In the following years, advancements in IC technology continued, leading to the development of more complex and powerful integrated circuits. By the 1970s, ICs became prevalent in a wide range of electronic devices, including computers, calculators, telecommunications equipment, and consumer electronics.

Since their introduction, ICs have undergone significant advancements in terms of performance, density, and functionality. Today, ICs are an integral part of nearly all electronic devices, playing a crucial role in powering and controlling various functions. They have transformed the electronics industry by enabling smaller, more efficient, and highly integrated electronic systems.

The History of Silicon Valley
The History of Silicon Valley

The integrated circuit, sometimes known as a silicon chip, is used in electronic circuits to store thousands, even millions, of components. This innovation dictated that PCBs accept more conductors, resulting in higher stacking. As ICs shrank, so did PCB sizes, making soldering connections more difficult yet critical for reliability.

1970s to 1980s: Advancements in Soldermasks

Electronics experienced significant changes between the 1960s and 1980s. Jack Kilby, who worked at Texas Instruments, developed the first microprocessor in the early 1970s. This was critical since it enhanced how circuits function in electronics. The MITS Altair 8800 and the first Apple 1 were well-known desktop computers that operated on printed circuit boards (PCBs).

In the 1980s, surface mount technology (SMT) developed a strong presence. It allowed parts to be soldered securely onto PCBs, resulting in easier and more effective circuits without the need for holes. These improvements enhanced electronics for the digital age.

It lets parts get soldered right onto pads on PCBs, making circuits denser without needing holes. Soldermasks and coatings made soldering easier and improved how circuits were made. These advances made electronics smaller, more efficient, and better for the digital age.

solder-mask-over-bare-copper

A solder mask is a protective layer applied over the copper traces on a PCB to prevent solder bridges and ensure proper soldering during assembly. The use of solder masks became more widespread in the 1970s and 1980s as PCB manufacturing processes advanced. The solder mask layer became an essential part of the standard PCB fabrication process, contributing to enhanced reliability, easier assembly, and improved electrical insulation.

Solder masks offer several benefits, including:

  1. Preventing solder bridges: The solder mask prevents solder from flowing between adjacent copper traces, reducing the risk of short circuits or unintended connections.
  2. Protection against environmental factors: The solder mask provides a protective barrier against moisture, dust, and other contaminants, safeguarding the copper traces from corrosion and ensuring long-term reliability.
  3. Easy soldering: The solder mask exposes only the designated solder pads, making it easier to apply solder accurately during component soldering.
  4. Improved visual inspection: The solder mask’s color contrast with the copper traces enhances visibility, making it easier to visually inspect the PCB for quality control purposes.

As PCB technology has advanced, solder mask materials and application methods have also evolved. Today, solder masks are an integral part of the PCB manufacturing process, ensuring reliable and efficient assembly of electronic components.

1990's: Innovations in the Final PCB

PCB technology changed throughout the fast-paced 1990s, opening the door for smaller and more efficient electronics. Innovations in PCB design allowed for more power to be packed onto single chips, leading to smaller and more portable devices. Personal computers have become popular as home staples during the last decade, owing to the expansion of Internet access through dial-up and broadband networks.

Simultaneously, cellular phones evolved from bulky antennas to sleek popularity symbols, reliant on state-of-the-art PCBs. As generations miniaturized, PCB design became more specialized, integrating laptop-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software programs to automate strategies and accommodate smaller, more complex components. These tendencies now not only make tool performance and reliability more desirable but additionally drive down fees, paving the way for the interconnected virtual age.

20th Century: Recent Improvements

PCB trends began in the twentieth century and continued into the twenty-first, resulting in increased complexity and tightness through enhanced production techniques such as etching and soldering. Printed circuit boards (PCBs) have become important for area exploration due to their lightweight and strong properties. In the twenty-first century, these advancements have resulted in compact, versatile gadgets such as cell phones and computer systems that span several eras.

PCBs are likely to play a significant role in future technologies such as smart homes, autonomous motors, and robots. They continue to improve with smaller sizes, greater functionality, and larger packages.

Today and Future

Today’s printed circuit boards (PCBs) are advanced, with complicated circuits created using a few layers, surface-established components, and enhanced computer-aided designs (CAD). They play a key function in current technological trends such as 5G, IoT, AI, and automation, allowing for quick data processing and communication, particularly with computers.

The term “printed circuit board” is now recognized and utilized, eliminating earlier expressions such as “published wire board.” Future advancements, such as rigid-flex PCBs, will combine inflexible and bendy substances to provide smaller and more complex PCB layouts for a wide range of electronic devices.

FAQs

Until the 1980s, PCBs used to be drawn by hand, which was simpler and only allowed for the saving and exchange of designs through pictures. The computers and EDA (Electronic Design Automation) applications then took over, making the PCB designs flexible and fully integrated into the PCB production machines.

A printed circuit board (PCB) technically supports and electrically connects electronic components with conductive paths, tracks, or signal lines etched from copper sheets bonded onto a surface that is not conductive.

Before the introduction of printed circuit boards, electronic and electrical circuits were connected point-to-point on a framework. The frame was often made of metal sheets with a hardwood bottom.

Future advances in PCB technology encompass flexible and rigid-flex PCBs, biodegradable components, and enhanced manufacturing procedures to meet the growing needs of technologies like as IoT, AI, and smart gadgets.

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Irene Shi
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