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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Bespoke Processors Might Soon Power Your Artisanal Devices

Modern microprocessors are a marvel of technological progress and engineering. At less than a dollar per unit, even the cheapest microprocessors on the market are orders of magnitude more powerful than their ancestors. The first commercially available single-chip processor, the Intel 4004, cost roughly $25 (in today’s dollars) when it was introduced in 1971.

The 4-bit 4004 clocked in at 740 kHz — paltry by today’s standards, but quite impressive at the time. However, what was remarkable about the 4004 was the way it shifted computer design architecture practically overnight. Previously, multiple chips were used for processing and were selected to just meet the needs of the application. Considering the cost of components at the time, it would have been impractical to use more than was needed.

That all changed with the new era ushered in by general purpose processors like the 4004. Suddenly it was more cost-effective to just grab a processor of the shelf than to design and manufacture a custom one – even if that processor was overpowered for the task. That trend has continued (and has been amplified) to this day. Your microwave probably only uses a fraction of its processing power, because using a $0.50 processor is cheaper than designing (and manufacturing) one tailored to the microwave’s actual needs.

Anyone who has ever worked in manufacturing, or who has dealt with manufacturers, knows this comes down to unit cost. Because companies like Texas Instruments makes millions of processors, they’re very inexpensive per unit. Mass production is the primary driving force in affordability. But, what if it didn’t have to be?

Professors [Rakesh Kumar] and [John Sartori], along with their students, are experimenting with bespoke processor designs that aim to cut out the unused portions of modern processors. They’ve found that in many applications, less than half the logic gates of the processor are actually being used. Removing these reduces the size and power consumption of the processor, and therefore the final size and power requirements of the device itself.

Of course, that question of cost comes back into play. Is a smaller and more efficient processor worth it if it ends up costing more? For most manufacturers of devices today, the answer is almost certainly no. There aren’t many times when those factors are more important than cost. But, with modern techniques for printing electronics, they think it might be feasible in the near future. Soon, we might be looking at custom processors that resemble the early days of computer design.


Intel 4004 internals

The silicon wizards at Flylogic have certainly posted an interesting chip this time around. The Intel 4004 was the first widely used microprocessor. The logic gates are much larger than you’d find in modern chips. The unique feature is that each gate is designed to make the most efficient use of the silicon instead of the standardized shapes you find now. They’ve uploaded a full image of the chip.

For an introduction to silicon hacking, we reccomend [bunnie]’s talk from Toorcon and [Karsten]’s talk from 24C3. You can find many more posts on the topic in our silicon tag.