We are used to stories about reverse engineering integrated circuits, in these pages. Some fascinating exposés of classic chips have been produced by people such as the ever-hard-working [Ken Shirriff].
You might think that this practice would be something new, confined only to those interested in the workings of now-obsolete silicon. But the secrets of these chips were closely guarded commercial intelligence back in the day, and there was a small industry of experts whose living came from unlocking them.
Integrated Circuit Engineering Corporation were a Scottsdale, Arizona based company who specialised in semiconductor industry data. They have long since been swallowed up in a series of corporate takeovers, but we have a fascinating window into their activities because their archive is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution. They reverse engineered integrated circuits to produce reports containing detailed information about their mechanical properties as well as their operation, and just such a report is our subject today. Their 1979 examination of the Zilog Z80 CTC (PDF) starts with an examination of the package, in this case the more expensive ceramic variant, then looks in detail at the internal construction of the die itself, and its bonding wires. We are then taken in its typewritten pages through an extensive analysis of the circuitry on the die, with gate-level circuits to explain the operation of each part.
The detail contained in this report is extraordinary, it is clear that a huge amount of work went into its production and it would have been of huge value to certain of Zilog’s customers and competitors. At the time this would have been extremely commercially sensitive information, even if it now seems like a historical curiosity.
The Z80 CTC is a 4-channel counter/timer peripheral chip for the wildly succesful Z80 8-bit microprocessor, in a 28-pin dual-in-line package. We were surprised to find from a quick search that you can still buy this chip from some of the usual suppliers rather than the surplus houses, so it may even still be in production.
[Ken Shirriff] has seen the insides of more integrated circuits than most people have seen bellybuttons. (This is an exaggeration.) But the point is, where we see a crazy jumble of circuitry, [Ken] sees a riddle to be solved, and he’s got a method that guides him through the madness.
In his talk at the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, [Ken] stepped the audience through a number of famous chips, showing how he approaches them and how you could do the same if you wanted to, or needed to. Reading an IC from a photo is not for the faint of heart, but with a little perseverance, it can give you the keys to the kingdom. We’re stoked that [Ken] shared his methods with us, and gave us some deeper insight into a handful of classic silicon, from the Z80 processor to the 555 timer and LM7805 voltage regulator, and beyond.
It all started off innocently enough. [mretro] was curious about what was inside a sealed metal box, took a hacksaw to it and posted photographs up on the Interwebs. Over one hundred forum pages and several years later, the thread called (at least in Google Translate) “dissecting room” continues to amaze.
If you like die shots, decaps, or teardowns of oddball Russian parts, this is like drinking from a firehose. You can of course translate the website, but it’s more fun to open it up in Russian and have a guess at what everything is before peeking. (Hint: don’t look at the part numbers. NE555 is apparently “NE555” in Russian.)
From a brief survey, a lot of these seem to be radio parts, and a lot of it is retro or obsolete. Forum user [lalka] seems to have opened up one of every possible Russian oscillator circuit. The website loads unfortunately slowly, at least where we are, but bear in mind that it’s got a lot of images. And if your fingers tire of clicking, note that the URL ends with the forum page number. It’d be a snap to web-scrape the whole darn thing overnight.