The First Microprocessor Released in 1971 by Intel

Culture | July 17, 2021

The Grandfather of microprocessors. (wikipedia)

When it comes to our knowledge of how electronics work, most of us understand it in the same way a dog understands algebra. You could say it ran on magic pixie dust and it would make as much sense as if you actually tried to explain the complex process of microprocessors and integrated circuits. Despite our nearly complete ignorance, these tiny pieces of electronic wizardry run just about every aspect of our lives at this point. The singular touchstone moment that started the ball toward today's technological wonderland came in 1971. As Intel wrote in their prescient advertisement, "Announcing a new era in integrated electronics", the world would never be the same.

From the size of a room to the size of a fingernail. (intel).jpg

“Is It Not A Strange Fate That We Should Suffer So Much Fear And Doubt For So Small A Thing?”

As “Lord of the Rings” foretold, the world experienced a seismic shift based on an invention no larger than a fingernail. Obviously, the first microprocessor failed to turn you invisible like the Ring of Power or even bring a single drastic change in a day. In fact, the first microprocessors only functioned on four bits and could only implement simple calculations.

Nevertheless, these early chips opened the door to programming intelligence into inanimate objects. They are still hailed as the “building blocks” of modern technology. They also represented a vast leap forward from the previous 25 years of research and development.

Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove three of the early tech titans. (ayafintech)

One Giant Miniaturization For All Mankind

While the major development for the microprocessor happened in 1971, incredibly smart people had toiled for decades to reach that evolutionary leap. The tiny fingernail microprocessors of the disco decade fulfilled the function of electronic computing that took up an entire room in 1946.

The same comparison can be made from the Groovy Era to today. For example, your computer’s charger is more powerful and sophisticated than the computers used to land the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon! The early processes of ‘71 held 2,300 transistors. 40 years later an Intel Core processor with 32-nanometer processing stored 560 million transistors. Despite that cavernous difference, none of this would have occurred without the first microprocessors.

From left, Federico Faggin, Ted Hoff, and Stanley Mazor holding Intel 4004 processors in 1996. (Paul Sakuma AP)

The Inventors

Two dispirited engineers, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, split from Fairchild Semiconductor Company to go on their own. So many engineers followed in their footsteps that those leaving the company were dubbed "Fairchildren." Unlike many of their brethren, Noyce and Moore hit it big, receiving $2.5 million in two days from San Francisco venture capitalist Art Rock. Their original name "Moore Noyce" was already a hotel chain so they had to settle for "Intel," shorthand for "Integrated Electronics."

Basically magic pixie dust. (intel free press flickr)

The Proliferation

Under their direction, engineers Federico Faggin, Ted Hoff, and Stanley Mazor created the granddaddy Intel 4004 chip. The brainchild came from a request to create 12 separate chips to control the various functions for a Busicom-manufactured calculator. They didn’t have the main power to produce that many chips so they created one that could do the work of 12! Intel also made the genius decision to buy the design and marketing rights from Busicom for $60,000, who ironically went bankrupt the following year. After a slick marketing campaign, the Intel 4004 quickly exploded into widespread use and the rest is history.

Tags: Intel | microprocessor | modern technology

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