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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Project 54/74 Maps out Logic ICs

Integrated circuits are a fundamental part of almost all modern electronics, yet they closely resemble the proverbial “black box” – we may understand the inputs and outputs, but how many of us truly understand what goes on inside? Over the years, the process of decapping ICs has become popular – the removal of the package to enable peeping eyes to glimpse the mysteries inside. It’s an art that requires mastery of chemistry, microscopy and photography on top of the usual physics skills needed to understand electronics. Done properly, it allows an astute mind to reverse engineer the workings of the silicon inside.

There are many out there publishing images of chips they’ve decapped, but [Robert Baruch] wants more. Namely, [Robert] seeks to create a database of die images of all 5400 and 7400 series logic chips – the eponymous Project 54/74.

These chips are the basic building blocks of digital logic – NAND gates, inverters, shift registers, decade counters and more. You can build a CPU with this stuff. These days, you may not be using these chips as often in a production context, but those of you with EE degrees will likely have toyed around a few of these in your early logic classes.

There’s only a handful of images up so far, but they’re of excellent quality, and they’re also annotated. This is a great aid if you’re trying to get to grips with the vagaries of chip design. [Robert] is putting in the hard yards to image as many variations of every chip as possible. There’s also the possibility of comparing the same chip for differences between manufacturers. We particularly like this project, as all too often manufacturing techniques and technologies are lost and forgotten as the march of progress continues on. It looks like it’s going to become a great resource for those looking to learn more about integrated circuit design and manufacture!

Super Thin ICs are Coming

An ordinary integrated circuit is made of layers of material. Typically a layer is made from some material (like silicon dioxide, polysilicon, copper, or aluminum). Sometimes a process will modify parts of a layer (for example, using ion implantation to dope regions of silicon). Other times, some part of the layer will be cut away using a photolithography process.

Researchers at MIT have a new technique that allows super thin layers (1-3 atoms thick) and–even more importantly–enables you to use two materials in the same layer. They report that they have built all the basic components required to create a computer using the technique.

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Building Custom Integrated Circuits

The first integrated circuits weren’t tiny flecks of silicon mounted to metal carriers and embedded in epoxy or ceramic. The first integrated circuits, albeit a looser definition of such, were just a few transistors, resistors, and diodes mashed together in the same package. With this in mind, [Rupert] created his own custom IC. It’s an IR receiver transmitter constructed out of a transistor, resistor, and an LED.

The attentive reader should be asking, “wait, can’t you just buy an IR receiver transmitter?” Yes, yes you can. But that’s not a hack™, and would otherwise be very uninteresting.

[Rupert]’s IC is just three parts, a 2n2222 transistor, a 220Ω resistor and an IR LED. With a good bit of deadbug soldering, these three parts were melded into something that resembled, and had the same pinout of, a Vishay TSOP4838 IR receiver. The epoxy used to encapsulate this integrated circuit is a standard 2-part epoxy and laser printer toner. Once everything is mixed up into a gooey slurry, it’s dripped over the IC producing a blob of an integrated circuit. It’s functionally identical to the standard commercial version, and looks good enough for a really cool project [Rupert]’s been working on.

Thanks [foehammer] for the tip.

A Peek Under the Hood of the 741 Op-Amp

First introduced as an IC back in 1968, but with roots that go back to 1941, the 741 has been tweaked and optimized over the years and is arguably the canonical op-amp. [Ken Shirriff] decided to take a look inside everybody’s favorite op-amp, and ended up with some good-looking photomicrographs and a lot of background on the chip.

canRather than risk the boiling acid method commonly used to decap epoxy-potted ICs, [Ken] wisely chose a TO-99 can format to attack with a hacksaw. With the die laid bare for his microscope, he was able to locate all the major components and show how each is implemented in silicon. Particularly fascinating is the difference between the construction of NPN and PNP transistors, and the concept of “current mirrors” as constant current sources. And he even whipped up a handy interactive chip viewer – click on something in the die image and find out which component it is on the 741 schematic. Very nice.

We’ve seen lots of chip decappings before, including this reveal of TTL and CMOS logic chips. It’s nice to see the guts of the venerable 741 on display, though, and [Ken]’s tour is both a great primer for the newbie and a solid review for the older hands. Don’t miss the little slice of history he included at the end of the post.

Spit Out VGA with Non-Programmable Logic Chips

It’s not uncommon to bitbang a protocol with a microcontroller in a pinch. I2C is frequently crunched from scratch, same with simple serial protocols, occasionally complex systems like Ethernet, and a whole host of other communication standards. But VGA gets pretty tricky because of the timing requirements, so it’s less common to bitbang. [Sven] completely threw caution to the wind. He didn’t just bitbang VGA on an Arduino, but he went one step further and configured an array of 7400 logic chips to output a VGA signal.

[Sven]’s project is in two parts. In part one, he discusses choosing a resolution and setting up the timing signal. He proceeds to output a simple(-ish) VGA signal that can be displayed on a monitor using a single gate. At that point only a red image was displayed, but getting signal lock from the monitor is a great proof of concept and [Sven] moved on to more intricate display tricks.

With the next iteration of the project [Sven] talks about adding in more circuitry to handle things like frame counting, geometry, and color. The graphics that are displayed were planned out in a simulator first, then used to design the 7400 chip configuration for that particular graphic display. It made us chuckle that [Sven] reports his monitor managed to survive this latest project!

We don’t remember seeing non-programmable integrated circuits used for VGA generation before. But bitbanging the signal on an Arduino or from an SD card slot is a great test of your ability to calculate and implement precise timings with an embedded system. Give it a try!

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