The Art Of The Silicon Chip

If you have followed the group of reverse engineers whose work on classic pieces of silicon we feature regularly here at Hackaday, you may well be familiar with the appearance of the various components that make up their gates and other functions. What you may not be familiar with, however, are the features that can occasionally be found which have no function other than the private amusement of the chip designers themselves. Alongside the transistors, resistors, and interconnects, there are sometimes little pieces of artwork inserted into unused spaces on the die, visible only to those fortunate enough to own a powerful microscope.

Fortunately those of us without such an instrument can also take a look at these works, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, who have brought together a gallery of them on the web as part of their chip collection. In it we find cartoon characters such as Dilbert, favourites from children’s books such as Waldo, and the Japanese monster Godzilla. There are animals, cows, a leopard, a camel, and a porpoise, and of course company logos aplenty.

In a sense, these minuscule artworks are what our more strident commenters might describe as Not A Hack, but to dismiss them in such a manner would be to miss their point. Even in an age of huge teams of integrated circuit designers working with computerized tools rather than the lone geniuses of old with their hand drafting, we can still see little flashes of individuality with no practical or commercial purpose and with no audience except a very few. And we like that.

Also take a look at the work of [Ken Shirriff] for a masterclass in IC reverse engineering.

23 thoughts on “The Art Of The Silicon Chip

  1. I always find these really interesting. I wonder if they serve a purpose beyond pure amusement of the creators. Like would they function in a similar way copyright traps on maps?

    1. Oftentimes features like this were indeed “copyright traps”. If you were a company that tended to find its chips copied by a competitor, you could leave little Easter eggs like this on the die to bolster your case in court. The competitor could argue that the working parts of the chip had to be in the places they were for functional reasons that affected both designs, but a feature that looked like Kermit the frog ( or a corresponding blank space ) was a lot harder to defend as ‘coincidence’ at lawsuit time.

      1. You are 100% correct. My father-in-law worked for years at a startup making custom silicon chips (this was back in the 80s). They had one chip that went big, and some people started making knockoffs. The rub? The main designer had incorporated a portrait of his daughter in the silicon, and the guys ripping of the design hadn’t bothered to remove it, or weren’t smart enough to remove it. The worst part was that even thought my father-in-laws company was is the right, clearly owned the patents over the part and designs, and would have won in court, the company decided to not bother with fighting it. They were acquired within the quarter and the whole line got shut down. Guess that management knew what was going on and decided it wasn’t worth it.

  2. I did one in 1989 as a tiff of our team converted to Cadence skill (lispesque) and drc clean for IITs vision processor. It’s my picture on github user morbos. I am on the left with more dark hair than now.

  3. It still happens. Where I work they leave some patterns hidden among the die for traceback, but also designers like to get their name in among the design. I was in a design review there recently and up pops the designers full name in the middle of the layout. I had thought it was frowned upon but not a peep out of anyone.

  4. We have an e-beam lithography system at work (uni research lab) and the software has an image import feature, a simple threshold of a bw image with matlab/similar and you can write anything you fancy. Occasionally I’ll stick a waste piece of silicon dioxide wafer in the system during a long pattern write with some resist on before doing a lift-off during any gold evaporation I have to do further down the fabrication run. Here’s one of a certain celebrity chef I did last year, from memory the largest one is about 100 microns long I think…

  5. Someone ratted on Mostek in the late-70s/early-80s for inserting a picture of (an obvious cut-and-paste picture of a Disney-generated) Mickey Mouse on the die of a custom chip designed and manufactured for Magnavox. The chip was for a television project and system which Magnavox code-named RATS–Random Access Tuning System.

    Disney’s lawyers were not amused. Even the magnanimous offer to append the ‘©’, ‘®’, or ‘™’ symbols had no import.

  6. The Digital Equipment F11 Chip contained the iconic thumb of Happy Day’s character Fonzie. The F11 or “FONZ-11” Chip was part of the PDP-11/24. In 1980 I actually found it by accident when I noticed that a co-worker had a de-capped F11 chip under a scope. Having left it unattended… I had to take a peek. I had no idea it would be there.

  7. There is an old anecdote about the cold war where two Russian engineers are trying to copy western chip. They polish one layer, take a photo, polish another off, take a photo… And the next layer says “Hello soviet engineers!”.

  8. The 10-speed bike on page 1 of your silicon art, is mine. I was a long-time mask layout designer for Motorola. It was “drawn” in a blank area of the die for the engineer, named Chris Hanke, who was an avid cyclist. I believe this was in the mid 80’s, at the Mesa Arizona Motorola Facility.

    Lynn Arbuckle

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