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Intel marks 40 years of the 4004 microprocessor

Analysis A 1971 breakthrough that changed the world
Tue Nov 15 2011, 09:25
Intel 4004 Microprocessor

CHIPMAKER Intel today celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 4004, the world's first commercially available microprocessor.

4004-powersmallTo call Intel's 4004 just a microprocessor is to do the microelectronics world a great disservice. Not only was the Intel 4004 the first commercial microprocessor, shattering what people thought of computers, it signaled Intel's shift away from manufacturing memory and into what was going to become the industry that changed the world forever.

Back in 1969 when Japanese calculator outfit Nippon Calculating Machine Corporation asked Intel to design 12 chips for a business calculator called Busicom, Intel had already achieved some success with its memory business. Although Intel was far from being a market leader, the two 'Fairchildren', Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were busy making money fabbing RAM chips, but not for much longer.

Back in 1969, Intel didn't have the luxury of saying no to business and Federico Faggin, Ted Hoff and Masatoshi Shima got to work on designing a processor for the relatively mundane business calculator. Later Hoff remarked that in the late 1960s it simply wasn't feasible to talk about personal computers.

Like the birth of many revolutionary pieces of engineering, the 4004 was designed by a bunch of engineers working into the night on the promise of creating something completely different.

While Faggin, who had also worked at Fairchild Semiconductor with Noyce and Moore, was busy designing the 4004 Hoff is widely credited with coming up with the architecture. Faggin built Hoff's architecture, with the legend saying that the first wafers came back to Intel's Santa Clara offices at 6PM just as everyone was clocking out for the day. Faggin pulled an all nighter in the lab to check whether the first baked 4004 actually worked, and at 3AM, overcome with exhaustion and satisfied that the radical 4004 did the job, he went home to tell his wife, "It works!".

Faggin was so proud of his design that he etched his initials, FF, on one side of the 4004's design. In later iterations of the 4004 the initials were moved, but just like an artist, Faggin signed his own work. And make no mistake, the 4004 processor is a work of art.

It might sound bashful, but Intel's 4004 wasn't particularly powerful, and the firm admitted, "The 4004 was not very powerful, it was primarily used to perform simple mathematical operations in a calculator called Busicom." However Noyce and Moore realised that it wasn't the 4004 itself that was important but its architecture.


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