Before the development of printed circuit boards, in the 19th and early 20th century, complex electrical and electronic circuits were wired point-to-point on a chassis. Typically, the chassis was a sheet metal frame or pan, sometimes with a wooden bottom. Components were attached to the chassis, usually by insulators when the connecting point on the chassis was metal, and then their leads were connected directly or with jumper wires by soldering, or sometimes using crimp connectors, wire connector lugs on screw terminals, or other methods. Circuits were large, bulky, heavy, and relatively fragile (even discounting the breakable glass envelopes of the vacuum tubes that were often included in the circuits), and production was labor-intensive, so the products were expensive.
Development of the methods used in modern printed circuit boards started early in the 20th century. In 1903, a German inventor, Albert Hanson, described flat foil conductors laminated to an insulating board, in multiple layers. Thomas Edison experimented with chemical methods of plating conductors onto linen paper in 1904. Arthur Berry in 1913 patented a print-and-etch method in the UK, and in the United States Max Schoop obtained a patent to flame-spray metal onto a board through a patterned mask. Charles Ducas in 1927 patented a method of electroplating circuit patterns.
The Austrian engineer Paul Eisler invented the printed circuit as part of a radio set while working in the UK around 1936. In 1941 a multi-layer printed circuit was used in German magnetic influence naval mines. Around 1943 the USA began to use the technology on a large scale to make proximity fuses for use in World War II. After the war, in 1948, the USA released the invention for commercial use. Printed circuits did not become commonplace in consumer electronics until the mid-1950s, after the Auto-Sembly process was developed by the United States Army. At around the same time in the UK work along similar lines was carried out by Geoffrey Dummer, then at the RRDE.
Even as circuit boards became available, the point-to-point chassis construction method remained in common use in industry (such as TV and hi-fi sets) into at least the late 1960s. Printed circuit boards were introduced to reduce the size, weight, and cost of parts of the circuitry. In 1960, a small consumer radio receiver might be built with all its circuitry on one circuit board, but a TV set would probably contain one or more circuit boards.
An example of hand-drawn etched traces on a PCB
Predating the printed circuit invention, and similar in spirit, was John Sargrove's 1936–1947 Electronic Circuit Making Equipment (ECME) which sprayed metal onto a Bakelite plastic board. The ECME could produce three radio boards per minute.
During World War II, the development of the anti-aircraft proximity fuse required an electronic circuit that could withstand being fired from a gun, and could be produced in quantity. The Centralab Division of Globe Union submitted a proposal which met the requirements: a ceramic plate would be screenprinted with metallic paint for conductors and carbon material for resistors, with ceramic disc capacitors and subminiature vacuum tubes soldered in place. The technique proved viable, and the resulting patent on the process, which was classified by the U.S. Army, was assigned to Globe Union. It was not until 1984 that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) awarded Mr. Harry W. Rubinstein the Cledo Brunetti Award for early key contributions to the development of printed components and conductors on a common insulating substrate. Mr. Rubinstein was honored in 1984 by his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for his innovations in the technology of printed electronic circuits and the fabrication of capacitors. This invention also represents a step in the development of integrated circuit technology, as not only wiring but also passive components were fabricated on the ceramic substrate.
A PCB as a design on a computer (left) and realized as a board assembly populated with components (right). The board is double sided, with through-hole plating, green solder resist and a white legend. Both surface mount and through-hole components have been used.
Originally, every electronic component had wire leads, and a PCB had holes drilled for each wire of each component. The component leads were then inserted through the holes and soldered to the copper PCB traces. This method of assembly is called through-hole construction. In 1949, Moe Abramson and Stanislaus F. Danko of the United States Army Signal Corps developed the Auto-Sembly process in which component leads were inserted into a copper foil interconnection pattern and dip soldered. The patent they obtained in 1956 was assigned to the U.S. Army. With the development of board lamination and etching techniques, this concept evolved into the standard printed circuit board fabrication process in use today. Soldering could be done automatically by passing the board over a ripple, or wave, of molten solder in a wave-soldering machine. However, the wires and holes are inefficient since drilling holes is expensive and consumes drill bits and the protruding wires are cut off and discarded.
From the 1980s onward, small surface mount parts have been used increasingly instead of through-hole components; this has led to smaller boards for a given functionality and lower production costs, but with some additional difficulty in servicing faulty boards.
Manufacturers may not support component-level repair of printed circuit boards because of the relatively low cost to replace compared with the time and cost of troubleshooting to a component level. In board-level repair, the technician identifies the board (PCA) on which the fault resides and replaces it. This shift is economically efficient from a manufacturer's point of view but is also materially wasteful, as a circuit board with hundreds of good components may be discarded and replaced due to the failure of one minor and inexpensive part such as a resistor or capacitor. This practice is a significant contributor to the problem of e-waste.