Federico Faggin: The Real Silicon Man

While doing research for our articles about inventing the integrated circuit, the calculator, and the microprocessor, one name kept popping which was new to me, Federico Faggin. Yet this was a name I should have known just as well as his famous contemporaries Kilby, Noyce, and Moore.

Faggin seems to have been at the heart of many of the early advances in microprocessors. He played a big part in the development of MOS processors during the transition from TTL to CMOS. He was co-creator of the first commercially available processor, the 4004, as well as the 8080. And he was a co-founder of Zilog, which brought out the much-loved Z80 CPU. From there he moved on to neural networking chips, image sensors, and is active today in the scientific study of consciousness. It’s time then that we had a closer look at a man who’s very core must surely be made of silicon.

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Retrotechtacular: AM Radios, Core Memory, And Color TV, What Was Hot In Chips In ’73

As part of writing tech stories such as those we feature here at Hackaday, there is a huge amount of research to be done.  We trawl through pages and pages of obscure blogs, videos, and data sheets. Sometimes we turn up resources interesting enough that we file them away, convinced that they contain the nucleus of another story at some point in the future.

Today’s topic of entertainment is just such a resource, courtesy of the Internet Archive. It’s not a video as we’d often provide you in a Retrotechtacular piece, instead it’s the February 1973 edition of the Fairchild Semiconductor Linear Integrated Circuits Catalog. Books like this one that could be had from company sales representatives were highly prized in the days before universal Internet access to data sheets, and the ink-on-paper datasheets within it provide a fascinating snapshot of the integrated electronics industry as it was 45 years ago.

The first obvious difference between then and now is one of scale, this is a single volume containing Fairchild’s entire range. At 548 pages it wouldn’t have been a slim volume by any means, but given that Fairchild were at the time one of the big players in the field it is unimaginable that the entire range of a 2018 equivalent manufacturer could be contained in the same way. Given that the integrated circuit was at the time an invention barely 15 years old, we are looking at an industry still in relative infancy.

The catalog has a series of sections with familiar headings: Operational amplifiers, comparators, voltage regulators, computer/interface, consumer, and transistor/diode arrays with analog switches. Any modern catalog will have similar headings, and there are even a few devices you will find have survived the decades. The μA741 op-amp (page 64) from its original manufacturer has not yet become a commodity product here, and it sits alongside familiar devices such as the μA7800 series (page 201) or μA723 (page 194) regulators.

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Inventing The Microprocessor: The Intel 4004

We recently looked at the origins of the integrated circuit (IC) and the calculator, which was the IC’s first killer app, but a surprise twist is that the calculator played a big part in the invention of the next world-changing marvel, the microprocessor.

There is some dispute as to which company invented the microprocessor, and we’ll talk about that further down. But who invented the first commercially available microprocessor? That honor goes to Intel for the 4004.

Path To The 4004

Busicom calculator motherboard based on 4004 (center) and the calculator (right)
Busicom calculator motherboard based on 4004 (center) and the calculator (right)

We pick up the tale with Robert Noyce, who had co-invented the IC while at Fairchild Semiconductor. In July 1968 he left Fairchild to co-found Intel for the purpose of manufacturing semiconductor memory chips.

While Intel was still a new startup living off of their initial $3 million in financing, and before they had a semiconductor memory product, as many start-ups do to survive they took on custom work. In April 1969, Japanese company Busicom hired them to do LSI (Large-Scale Integration) work for a family of calculators.

Busicom’s design, consisting of twelve interlinked chips, was considered a complicated one. For example, it included shift-register memory, a serial type of memory which complicates the control logic. It also used Binary Coded Decimal (BCD) arithmetic. Marcian Edward Hoff Jr — known as “Ted”, head of the Intel’s Application Research Department, felt that the design was even more complicated than a general purpose computer like the PDP-8, which had a fairly simple architecture. He felt they may not be able to meet the cost targets and so Noyce gave Hoff the go-ahead to look for ways to simplify it.

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How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It may surprise you that the microchip that we all know and love today was far from an obvious idea. Some of the paths that were being explored back then to cram more components into a smaller area seem odd now. But who hasn’t experienced hindsight of that sort, even on our own bench tops.

Let’s start the story of the microchip like any good engineering challenge should be started, by diving into the problem that existed at the time with the skyrocketing complexity of computing machines.

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ON Semiconductor Acquires Fairchild

In the continuing process of semiconductor companies buying each other up, ON Semiconductor has acquired Fairchild Semiconductor for $2.4 Billion.

ON Semi and Fairchild’s deal is only the latest in a long line of mergers and acquisitions. We’ve recently seen Dialog’s buyout of Atmel, Avago’s purchase of Broadcom,  NXP and Freescale’s merger, and soon might see TI buy Maxim. We’re currently in the great time of acquisition, with nearly $100 Billion flowing from company to company in just a few months.

Companies have cash to spend and costs to cut. This latest deal is expected to save $150 Million in annual costs.

Fairchild has a long and storied history in the semiconductor industry, with the first integrated circuit produced in a Fairchild lab in Palo Alto. [Bob Widlar] made Fairchild his home until famously leaving for National Semiconductor in 1965. Somewhat ironically, Fairchild Semiconductor was bought by National Semiconductor in 1987.

ON Semiconductor’s history is not nearly as interesting, being spun off of Motorola’s semiconductor business in 1999. Although ON’s main line of business was discrete components, ON also has a catalog of quite a few power management ICs.

Unfortunately, because ON Semi bought Fairchild and not the other way around, we’re stuck with what is probably the worst logo in the entire semiconductor industry: drop-shadowed balls are so mid-90s!