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PCB History and Evolution: From the 1920s Until Today

pcb history

The story of printed circuit boards (PCB) starts at the beginning of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, the first PCBs started replacing complicated and unreliable wiring that was in use at the time.

In short, it was an essential achievement in electrical engineering. Boards with integrated circuits meant sending and receiving signals from point A to point B without the need for robust cases.

But how did it all start, and what were the first PCBs like?

The Early Days

Back in the day, electrical and electronic devices were rather expensive. That wasn’t only because they were brand-new and revolutionary; it was mostly down to the cost of manufacturing. Luckily, PCBs came along and made mass production possible.

Before PCBs, engineers would use a unique technique that wasn’t as efficient and cost-friendly as nowadays. They would connect circuits with the board with the use of an old “point-to-point” technique.

Although this type of engineering can still work, it’s rather costly and uses lots of space. Another down-side was that the bases were usually plain wooden boxes. Also, besides being massive and pretty fragile, they were hard to manufacture.

Once PCBs came about, people could print circuits directly onto their boards. This new technique made work hours shorter and mass production possible. Therefore, not only was PCB manufacturing easier and quicker, but it was also cheaper.

The Initial Patterns

The first few years of the 20th century brought us a couple of revolutionary ideas that would change the world of electrical engineering. The most significant ones were the following:

  • 1903 — German inventor Albert Hanson introduced us to layered flat foil conductors.
  • 1904 — Thomas Edison began plating devices onto linen paper with chemicals.
  • 1913 — Arthur Berry would flame-spray a pattern mask with metal.
  • 1927 — Charles Ducas patented electroplating circuit patterns.

Unfortunately, none of these ideas broke into the mainstream of electrical engineering at the time. It was only when Paul Eisler’s printed circuits for radio devices appeared around 1936 that the world could see the full potential of the PCB design.

Back then, circuit boards could be almost anything. They’d be wooden boxes with hole components inside for flat brass wires most of the time. Sure, it wasn’t as fancy and high-tech as PCBs are nowadays, but it got the job done, and that was the most important thing. 

During World War II, both Axis and Allies would use this technique for various devices and weapons. The warring sides would make practical use of printed wiring boards, from German naval mines to American and British proximity fuses. Some historians claim that the hit rate of British anti-aircraft guns using proximity fuses went from a mere 10% to an astonishing 70% during the Battle of Britain.

“Point-To-Point” vs. PCB

The aftermath of the Second World War was rather interesting in terms of tech development. The U.S. took the leading role in implementing modern technology in commercial and everyday use. And as such, printed circuit boards became standard in every other household in the 1950s.

One of the most significant breakthroughs came in 1956 when a group of U.S. Army scientists patented their process of assembling electrical circuits. Their idea was to photograph a drawn wiring pattern on a zinc plate. The printing press would later use the plate to print the wire in acid-resistant ink.

Nonetheless, the now almost forgotten “point-to-point” wiring technique was still prominent during the post-WWII years. Television sets and hi-fi audio sets were using them regularly until the second half of the 1960s. Yup, TVs were pretty bulky back then, costing a fortune even for the middle-class people.

When manufacturers realized that using PCBs meant smaller and less robust products, “point-to-point” wiring became the standard. Still, boards were only one-sided with printed wires and electrical components on opposite surfaces during those days.

Modern Times — Size and Functionality

The ‘60s and ‘70s brought multi-layer boards. The manufacturers would use the red-and-blue line vellum technique for component and track taping. This idea would increase the speed at which an engineer would assemble a board. Each 14-pin I.C. on the board would take around two hours to make.

With time, boards began to get smaller and smaller. Hot air soldering became a standard in the industry. Also, on the other side of the world, Japanese engineers started to use liquid photo imageable masks (LPIs). The idea was to prevent oxidation and solder bridges between nearby solder pads, and it’s still in use today.

During the 1980s, the use of through-hole components came to an end. Small surface-mount parts became increasingly dominant in the industry, which meant that boards got even smaller yet more functional and cheap to make. Although it was a big breakthrough, it would prove to make servicing faulty boards a bit more complicated. 

More Recent History

The dawn of the digital age began in the 1990s. And with it, the PCBs became more complex with multiple layers and higher functionality. Smaller rigid and flexible printed circuit boards began popping up in a wide array of devices.

By the end of 1992, Valor Computerized Systems came out with the Genesis 2000 software for PCB DFM and CAM. Some five years later, the same company would release the ODB++ PCB manufacturing data format publicly.

Another important year in the history of PCBs development was 1995 when the High-Density Interconnect era began. The use of Microvia tech in PCB production led to HDIs becoming an integral part of the industry. With High-Density Interconnection, engineers would start using even smaller components.

During this period, the PCB market began to peak over $10 billion in worth. And later on, in the 2000s, with Flex and Rigid circuit boards becoming more affordable, the industry would top its success from the nineties.

Subsequently, the rise of 3D printing meant that PCB manufacturing was about to change. Printed electronics (PEs) proved rather helpful for multi-layer boards with functional liquid ink on them. Unfortunately, these advancements contribute to electronic waste, as repairing a PE board is more complicated than manufacturing a new one.

What’s Next for PCBs?

Seeing how technology is becoming more and more dominant in almost every aspect of our lives, there’s practically no end in sight for PCBs development. From modern medical equipment to surveillance systems and entertainment industry products, the need for more complex circuit boards will only increase in the coming years.

Some see a future in 3D molded plastic boards with even more use of the package-on-package method, integrated circuit chips, and embedded components. Sounds neat, doesn’t it?

A great example of how flexible and flex-rigid PCBs dominate the tech world is the fact that by 2022 the industry will reach $27 billion, as analysts say. And on the whole, some studies suggest the market itself will grow to almost $74 billion in the next 12 months. That just goes to show how prominent the industry has become. And what’s even better is the fact that it can only grow in worth in a few decades.

Final Thoughts

Although the timeline of PCB development wasn’t as free-flowing, one thing is certain — the future looks bright. It’s certainly been one hell of a ride throughout the years, from simple radio sets to miniature electronics.

Every decade brought us something new and exciting along the way. However, our needs are becoming more and more demanding. Therefore, boards will become more and more efficient in performing their tasks. Also, their prices will only go down, seeing how cheap it has become to produce them.

Contact Us!

With over a decade of experience in the market, MKTPCB is a safe bet to start your tech journey. We offer a wide array of possibilities for everyone looking to get into the world of printed circuit boards. Products come at reasonable prices, and we also provide excellent customer service.

In case you’re having any trouble choosing a PCB of your liking, please do contact us! Email or telephone, we’re here to help either way. We’ll respond to all of your questions within 24 hours after receiving your message. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us, be part of the future — choose MKTPCB.

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