A microchip is a small semiconductor used to relay information via specific electrical characteristics. In some cases, the term can be used interchangeably with integrated circuit. The microchip is at the heart of many electronics, including computers, cell phones and even microwave ovens.
The first microchip is credited jointly to Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby in 1958. Though both were working for different companies and coming at the invention from slightly different angles, the two companies decided both had part of the overall answer and decided to cross license their inventions to come up with one unified piece of technology. After being demonstrated in 1958, it was first available commercially in 1961.
The technology was basic compared to modern standards. The first chip held one transistor, three resistors and one capacitor; modern ones commonly hold millions of transistors in a space smaller than a U.S. penny. The increase in smaller and smaller semiconductor chips has led to numerous other benefits. Beyond being used in electronic gadgets, they can be inserted into biological organisms as well.
The microchip has even been credited as an invention which is used to save lives. Pacemakers use them in order to keep their timing so that they can run hearts efficiently. Mechanical hearts, themselves, use pacemakers to fully take over the function of a biological heart.
As the cost of biologically-centric microchip applications has come down, the number of uses has increased. For example, many pet owners now get them inserted in their animals; if the pet is lost and taken to an animal shelter or veterinary clinic, one of the first things workers will usually do is scan the animal to see if it has a microchip. The chip will reveal the owner's name and contact information.
Likewise, some people have had microchips inserted into themselves. If they are ever incapacitated and need to be taken to the hospital, they are already carrying their full medical history inside their body. These can be easily scanned and the information downloaded for medical professionals to make the most appropriate decisions possible. In the future, it is envisioned people may have these devices implanted that will take care of many of the everyday tasks. Cars may start as the owner approaches, or doors to homes may unlock only for those who have chips programmed with the key.