For years I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how silicon chips actually work. How does a purposefully contaminated shard of glass wield control over electrons? Every once in a while, someone comes up with a learning aid that makes these abstract concepts really easy to understand, and this was the case with one of the booths at Maker Faire Bay Area. In addition to the insight it gave me (and hundreds of Faire-goers), here is an example of the best of what Maker Faire stands for. You’ll find a video of their presentation embedded below, along with closeup images of the props used at the booth.
The Uncovering the Silicon booth had a banner and a tablecloth, but was otherwise so unassuming that many people I spoke with missed it. Windell Oskay, Lenore Edman, Eric Schlepfer, John McMaster, and Ken Shirriff took a 50-year-old logic chip and laid it bare for anyone who cared to stop and ask what was on display. The Fairchild μL914 is a dual NOR gate, and it’s age matters because the silicon is not just simple, it’s enormous by today’s standards making it relatively easy to peer inside with tools available to the individual hacker.
The first challenge is just getting to the die itself. This is John McMaster’s specialty, and you’re likely familiar from his Silicon Pr0n website. He decapped the chip (as well as an ATmega328 which was running the Arduino blink sketch with it’s silicon exposed). Visitors to the booth could look through the microscope and see the circuit for themselves. But looking doesn’t mean understanding, and that’s where this exhibit shines.
To walk us through how this chip works, a stack-up of laser-cut acrylic demonstrates the base, emitter, and collector of a single transistor. The color coding and shape of this small model makes it easy to pick out the six transistors of the 941 on a full model of the chip. This lets you begin to trace out the function of the circuit.
For me, a real ah-ha moment was the resistors in the design. A resistive layer is produced by doping the semiconductor with impurities, making it conduct more poorly. But how do you zero-in on the desired resistance for each part? It’s not by changing the doping, that remains the same. The trick is to make the resistor itself take up a larger footprint. More physical space for the electrons to travel means a lower resistance, and in the model you can see a nice fat resistor in the lower right. The proof for these models was the final showpiece of the exhibit as the artwork of the silicon die was laid out as a circuit board with discrete transistors used to recreate the functionality of the original chip.
Windell takes us through the booth presentation in the video below. I think you’ll be impressed by the breakdown of these concepts and how well they aid in understanding. This was a brilliant concept for an exhibit; it brought together interdisciplinary experts whom I respect and whose work I follow, and sought to invite everyone to gain a better understanding of the secrets hiding in the chips that underpin this technological age. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to see at a Maker Faire.