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The Chip That Changed the World

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The Intel 4004 microprocessor, 1971.

For the past 20 years, microprocessors have boosted performance by adding more computing cores per chip.

Credit: Getty Images

The world changed on Nov. 15, 1971, and hardly anyone noticed. It is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Intel 4004 microprocessor, a computer carved onto silicon, an element as plentiful on earth as sand on a beach. Microprocessors unchained computers from air-conditioned rooms and freed computing power to go wherever it is needed most. Life has improved exponentially since.

Back then, IBM mainframes were kept in sealed rooms and were so expensive companies used argon gas instead of water to put out computer-room fires. Workers were told to evacuate on short notice, before the gas would suffocate them. Feeding decks of punch cards into a reader and typing simple commands into clunky Teletype machines were the only ways to interact with the IBM computers. Digital Equipment Corp. sold PDP-8 minicomputers to labs and offices that weighed 250 pounds.

In 1969, Nippon Calculating Machine Corp. asked Intel to design 12 custom chips for a new printing calculator. Engineers Federico Faggin, Stanley Mazor and Ted Hoff were tired of designing different chips for various companies and suggested instead four chips, including one programmable chip they could use for many products. Using only 2,300 transistors, they created the 4004 microprocessor. Four bits of data could move around the chip at a time. The half-inch-long rectangular integrated circuit had a clock speed of 750 kilohertz and could do about 92,000 operations a second.

Intel introduced the 3,500-transistor, eight-bit 8008 in 1972; the 29,000-transistor, 16-bit 8086, capable of 710,000 operations a second, was introduced in 1978. IBM used the next iteration, the Intel 8088, for its first personal computer. By comparison, Apple's new M1 Max processor has 57 billion transistors doing 10.4 trillion floating-point operations a second. That is at least a billionfold increase in computer power in 50 years. We've come a long way, baby.

From The Wall Street Journal
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