The History of PCBs from 1870 to Today

Edwin Robledo May 10, 2022 17 min read

Learn about the history of PCBs (printed circuit boards) with the introduction of the transistor, integrated circuit, BGA, and SMT.

Like many other great inventions in history, the printed circuit board (PCB) that we know today was built on a foundation of advancements throughout history. In our little corner of the world, we can trace the history of PCBs back over 130 years, when the great industrial machine of the world was just kicking into motion. What we cover in this article is not a complete history but rather the sweeping moments that transformed PCBs into what they are today.

Why PCBs?

Over time, PCBs have evolved as a tool for optimizing electronics manufacturing. What was once assembled easily by hand soon gave way to microscopic components that required the precision and efficiency of machinery. Take, for example, the two circuit boards shown below. One is a board for a calculator from the 1960s. The other is a typical high-density motherboard that you’ll see in computers today.

1968-calculator-pcbmodern-motherboard

PCB comparison between a 1968 calculator and today’s modern motherboards. (image source)

We probably have 30+ transistors in the calculator, but on a single chip on the motherboard, you’ll find over a million transistors. The point is that the rate at which technology and PCB design are advancing is impressive. Everything on that calculator PCB can now fit into a single chip in today’s designs. This brings to focus several noticeable trends in the manufacturing of PCBs:

These advances are driven by the increasing speed and functionality of our products. We expect our devices to respond instantly, and even a few seconds’ delay can send us into a frenzy. For functionality, think about video games. Back in the 80s, you were likely playing Pac-Man at the arcade. Now we’re seeing photorealistic representations of reality. The progress is just insane.

photorealistic-video-game
Video game visuals are nearly photorealistic these days. (Image source)

It’s pretty clear to see that the evolution of PCBs is in direct response to our expectations from our devices. We demand faster, cheaper, more powerful products, and the only way to meet those needs is to miniaturize and make the manufacturing process more efficient. When did this whole craze for electronics and PCBs first begin? At the dawn of the Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age (1879 – 1900)

We’re out of the American Civil War in the 60s, and now manufacturing is booming in the United States. We’re making everything we can during this period, from food to clothing, furniture, and railroad tracks. The transportation industry was hammering away, and our greatest engineers were figuring out how to get someone from the east coast of the United States to the west coast in 5-7 days instead of 5-7 months.

railroad-team
The railroad made it possible to travel from the east to the west coast in days, not months. (Image source)

We were also bringing electricity into households during this time, first starting in cities, then moving into the suburbs and rural areas. Electricity was now an alternative to coal, wood, and oil. Think about living in New York in the dead of winter, trying to cook a meal or heat your home with dirty coal or stacks of firewood. Electricity changed all of this.

One interesting note is that Standard Oil, which had a monopoly on the oil market, wasn’t supplying oil for gasoline. Their market was oil burned for cooking, frying, and lighting. With electricity entering the picture, Standard Oil would need to define a new purpose for oil, which would arrive with the introduction of the automobile.

standard-oil-company-shares
Shares of Standard Oil Company issues in May 1878, the beginning of the oil monopoly. (Image source)

Major Discoveries Made

During the Gilded Age, we saw some significant discoveries in electromagnetics. We have the invention of the motor, which converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. We also see generators, which do the opposite by converting mechanical energy into electrical energy.

This was also a period of genius inventors who still have an impact on our world of electronics today, including:

One of the most significant debates during this intense period of innovation was between AC and DC. Tesla’s AC ended up winning out as an ideal method of transporting electricity over long distances. However, what’s interesting to note is how we’re still dealing with AC-DC conversion issues today.

tesla-vs-edison
AC might have won the fight, but DC still dominates electronics.

Look at any electronic device that you plug into the wall, and you’ll need to convert the AC to DC. Or, if you look at the infrastructure requirements for solar panels, they produce electricity in DC. This has to be turned back into AC for mains and then back into DC to be used by our devices. You could almost say that the AC-DC debate never ended. A balance was just settled between two opposing ideas.

solar-panel-conversions
There’s a lot of back and forth between AC and DC in solar panels.

Note that the beginning ideas for the PCB were not invented during the Gilded Age. However, without the manufacturing prowess of this time and the spreading influence of electricity, the PCB would never be what it is today.

The Progressive Era (1890 – 1920)

The Progressive Era was a time of social reform, with legislation like the Sherman Antitrust Act, which broke up the monopoly of Standard Oil. This is also when we see the first patent for a PCB. In 1903, German Inventor Albert Hanson filed a British patent for a device described as a flat, foil conductor on an insulating board with multiple layers. Sound familiar?

albert-hanson-pcb-patent-drawing
A drawing depicting the first PCB patent secured by Albert Hanson.

Hanson also described the concept of a through-hole application in his patent. Here he showed that you could punch a hole through two layers that had perpendicular wires to establish electrical connectivity.

Push for electronic devices

During this time, we started to see a major push for electric-powered devices in everyday households by Edison and other business leaders. The problem with this push was the complete lack of standardization. If you lived in New York or New Jersey and used Edison’s electric inventions for lighting, heating, or cooking, what would happen if you used them in another city? They were unusable because each town had its own socket configurations.

This problem was also worse because Edison didn’t just want to sell people a light bulb. He wanted to sell a service. You’d get your electric service hooked up by Edison for a monthly fee; then, you’d buy the light bulbs, appliances, etc. Of course, none of these services were compatible with other competing methods.

We have Harvey Hubbel to thank for finally ending this mess. In 1915 he filed a patent for the standard wall outlet plug that is still in use today. However, now we don’t have toasters or heating plates plugged into light bulb sockets. It’s a massive win for standardization in the industry.

harvey-hubbell-patent-drawing
Thanks to Harvey Hubbel, we now have a standardized wall outlet for all electronics. (Image source)

One last thing to note is that the Progressive Era marked the first World War. This conflict was purely focused on mechanical devices and trench warfare. The PCB concept, and even basic electronics, still hadn’t come into use for military applications, but they soon would.

The Roaring Twenties (1920s)

With World War I coming to a close, we’re now in the Roaring Twenties and seeing a giant economic boom in the United States. This was the first time that more people lived in cities than farms. We also started to see chain stores and brands introduced throughout the United States. You might have had one or two family-owned shops in two different towns, but now major brands and stores have gone national.

The greatest invention during this period was the automobile by Henry Ford and its required infrastructure. This situation is similar to the 1990s, when we had to build a significant infrastructure to handle the internet and our information age by making switches, routers, and fiber optic cables. The automobile was no different.

henry-fords-quadricycle
Henry Ford’s first car – the Quadricycle. (Image source)

The invention of the automobile

Here we see roads that were once mud being paved. People needed gasoline to power their vehicles, so gas stations arose. You’ve also got repair shops, accessories, etc. An entire way of life for many people was born out of the invention of the automobile, as it still is today.

During this time, we saw the introduction of the modern appliances we still rely on today, like washing machines, vacuums, and refrigerators. This was the first time that people could shop at the store for perishable goods and store them for prolonged freshness.

But where are our PCBs? We’re still not seeing them used in any of the appliances or automobiles introduced during this time. However, in 1925 Charles Ducas submitted a patent that describes the process for adding conductive inks to an insulating material. This would later give birth to the printed wiring board (PWB). This patent was the first application to resemble a PCB but was only used as a flat heating coil. We still haven’t gotten to any actual electrical connectivity between the board and components, but we’re getting close.

charles-ducas-patent-drawing
The PCB evolved, this time being used as a heating coil by Charles Ducas.

The Great Depression (the 1930s)

In 1929 the stock market plummeted, and all of the great inventions and innovations of our time came tumbling down. Here we see a period of 25%+ unemployment, with 25,000 banks failing and a ton of hardship that ripples throughout the world. This was a miserable time for humanity and paved the way for the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and our future world conflict. PCBs might have laid quiet until now, but that was all about to change.

the-great-depression
The great depression affected everyone, from banks to the average worker.

World War 2 (1939 – 1945)

The second World War was underway, and the United States entered the fray in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What’s interesting to note about Pearl Harbor is the entire failure in communication leading up to the attack. The United States had good evidence of an impending crisis. Still, all methods of communicating with their military base in Honolulu were unsuccessful, so the island was caught by surprise.

Because of this failure, the U.S. Department of Defense realized they needed a more reliable method of communication. This brought electronics to the forefront as a primary means of communication to replace morse code.

The first use of a PCB

During World War 2, we saw the first use of a PCB as we know it today in the proximity fuse. This device was used for high-velocity artillery shells, which needed to fire precisely over massive distances in either sky or land. The proximity fuse was initially developed by the British to combat the push of Hitler’s Army. It was later shared with the United States, which perfected the design and manufacturing.

proximity-fuse
One of the first military applications to use a PCB – the proximity fuse. (Image source)

We also have Paul Eisler, an Austrian living in the UK, file a patent for copper foil on a non-conductive base of glass. Sound familiar? We still use this concept today for manufacturing PCBs with an insulating layer and copper on the top/bottom. Eisler took this idea one step further by making a radio with his PCB in 1943, which would pave the way for future military applications.

Radio-with-first-Printed-Circuit-Board-by-Paul-Eisler-1942
A radio made by Paul Eisler with the first printed circuit board (PCB). (Image source)

The Baby Boomers (the 1940s)

As World War 2 comes to a close, we see our soldiers arriving home, starting families, and having many children. Cue the Baby Boomer generation. During this Post War age, we see a ton of improvements to existing appliances like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, televisions, and radios. Now that the Great Depression has passed, many consumers can finally afford these devices in their homes.

What we’re still not seeing, though, are consumer-level PCBs. Where is Paul Eisler’s work? Take a look at this old television below, and you’ll see all of the components but no underlying PCB foundation.

1948-tv
An old Motorola television from 1948 with no PCB. (Image source)

Despite the lack of PCBs, we saw the transistor’s arrival at Bell Labs in 1947. It took another six years in 1953 for this device to finally be used in products, but why so long? Back in those days, information was spread through journals, conferences, etc. The spread of information simply took time to travel before the Information Age.

first-transistor
The first transistor was born in Bell Labs in 1947.

The Cold War Era (1947 – 1991)

The Cold War Era arrived, marking a considerable period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. These two giants almost go to battle and keep the world suspended in a threat of nuclear annihilation over the differences between capitalism and communism.

Both sides had to beef up their communication abilities to understand what the enemy was doing. It’s here where we see PCBs being used to their full potential. In 1956 the United States Army released their patent for the “Processing of Assembling Electrical Circuits.” Now manufacturers had a method to hold electronics and establish connectivity between components with copper traces.

As PCBs start to kick off in the manufacturing realm, we find ourselves in the world’s first Space Race. Russia had some accomplishments during this time, including:

sputnik-the-first-satellite
The first satellite, Sputnik, was launched by Russia in 1957. (Image source)

First man on the moon

Where was the United States in all of this? Mainly falling behind, often taking a year or two to develop the same technologies. In response to this gap, we see the U.S. space budget increasing 5x in 1960. We also have the famous President Kennedy Speech in 1962, part of which deserves to be quoted below:

“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” – U.S. President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

All of this leads to a landmark moment in history. On July 20, 1969, the United States landed the first man on the moon.

first-man-on-the-moon
The first man on the moon was a historic moment for humanity. (Image source)

Back to PCBs, in 1963, Hazeltyne Corporation filed a patent for the first plated through-hole technology. This would allow components to be closely spaced together on a PCB without worrying about crossover connections. We also see the introduction of surface mount technology (SMT) developed by IBM. These densely packed components found their first practical use in the Saturn rocket boosters.

through-hole-patent-drawing
The first patent for through-hole PCB technology was in 1967. (Image source)

The Dawn of the Microprocessor (the 1970s)

The 70s brought us the first microprocessor in the form of an integrated circuit (IC). This was initially developed in 1958 by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments. Kilby was a newbie at TI, so his innovative ideas for the IC were largely kept to himself. However, when senior TI engineers were sent out for a week-long conference, Kilby stayed behind to run with the ideas in his head. He developed the first IC in the TI labs, and the returning engineers loved it.

jack-kilby
Jack Kilby is holding the first integrated circuit.

In the 1970s, we saw ICs first being used in the manufacturing of electronics. By this time, if you weren’t using a PCB for connectivity, you were in big trouble.

The Dawn of the Digital Age (the 1980s)

The Digital Age brings about massive changes in how we consume media by introducing personal devices like compact discs, VHS, cameras, gaming consoles, walkmans, etc.

atari-video-game
Making a kid’s dream come true with the Atari video game console in 1980. (Image source)

It’s important to note that PCBs were still being drawn by hand with a light board and stencils, but then computers and EDA arrived. We see EDA software like Protel and EAGLE completely changing how we design and manufacture electronics. Instead of PCB photographs, we’re now able to save our designs as Gerber text files whose coordinates can be fed into manufacturing machinery to produce a PCB.

old-pcb-design
Drawing a printed circuit board with tape and mylar before EDA arrived. (Image source)

The Internet Age (1990s)

In the 90s, we see the use of silicon come into full swing with the introduction of BGAs. Now we can fit more gates onto a single chip and start to embed memories and Systems on Chip (SoC) together. This is also a period of intense miniaturization in electronics. We don’t see any new features added to PCBs, but the entire design process is starting to change and evolve, shifting to the IC.

Now designers have to implement Design for Test (DFT) strategies into their layouts. It’s not as easy to pop off a component and add a blue wire. Engineers have to design their layouts from the perspective of future rework. Thinking ahead, can I easily remove these components? Are all of those components in a way that they emoved? This is a huge concern.

This is also when smaller component packages like 0402 make the hand soldering of boards nearly impossible. The designer now lives in his EDA software, and the manufacturer handles the physical production and assembly.

smd-size-chart
Surface mount components from largest to smallest. (Image source)

The Hybrid Age (2000s and Beyond)

Cut to the present age of electronics and PCB design; we call this the Hybrid Age. In the past, we had multiple devices for multiple needs. You needed a calculator; you bought a calculator. You wanted to play video games; you purchased a video game console. Now you buy a smartphone and get 30 different layers of functionality built in. This might seem incredibly obvious, but when you look at everything our smartphones can do, it’s pretty astounding:

Gaming DeviceAddress BookEmailBarcode Scanner
FlashlightClockCameraNavigation
Music PlayerScheduleVideo RecorderMap
Internet BrowserCalendarMovie PlayerCalculator
TelephoneNote PadTicketsVoice Recorder
Answering MachineText MessageBankingBooks

We’re in an age of consolidation of devices, but what’s coming next? PCBs are established, and we have processes and procedures for nearly everything. High-speed applications are becoming the norm. We’re also seeing only 25% of PCB designers under 45 years old, and 75% are getting ready to retire. The industry seems to be in a period of crisis.

Could the future of PCB design be in robotics? Maybe in wearables with flexible circuitry? Or perhaps we might see protons replacing electrons with Photonics. As for the physical PCBs that we have come to know, even those might change in the future. Instead of needing a physical medium for connectivity between components, there is the potential for wave technology. This would allow parts to send signals wirelessly without needing copper.

What Will the Future Hold?

No one knows what PCB design or even the electronics industry as a whole will look like in the future. Nearly 130 years have passed since our manufacturing muscles have kicked into motion. Since then, the world has been forever changed with significant introductions like the automobile, electric appliances, computers, smartphones, and more. Gone are the days of our reliance on coal, wood, or oil for all of our basic sustenance and survival. Now we have electronics that can power our everyday needs.

But what will the future hold? That’s a big unknown. What is known is that every invention that came before us stood on the shoulders of its predecessor. Our forefathers got PCB design where it is today, and now it’s up to us to innovate and revolutionize how we design and interact with technology. The future could be anything. The future is up to you.

Ready to design the future of technology? No matter what PCB you’re working on, Autodesk Fusion 360 can help streamline your PCB design and manufacturing process. Try Fusion 360 for free today!

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