Microprocessor Intel 4004 has laid the foundation for computing and has touched every life on the planet. This is a story that many people forget.
“You won’t always have a calculator in your pocket, work it out.”
People born in the first three decades of the 20th century — when digital pocket calculators were like science fiction — are probably familiar with the sentence above. But in 2021, it’s rare to hear anyone say such a sentence, even in class. Today, we almost all carry a calculator in our pocket. We always carry a cell phone, a camera, an MP4 player, a live navigation system, and more.
Most of us probably think of all the devices as normal. But you’d never have all that without the Intel® 4004 — the world’s first commercial microprocessor — and the technological evolutions that this microprocessor fueled over the half century after its birth.
Today, microprocessors support power generation systems during extreme weather, helping prevent power outages and keeping heating systems on. In backpack form, the microprocessor manages artificial intelligence to help the blind explore the world, avoid obstacles, and cross roads safely. The microprocessor also translates facial expressions into commands to run a wheelchair in real-time so that those with physical limitations become more independent.
And it all started with a calculator. In 1969, the Japanese manufacturer, Nippon Calculating Machine Corp., requested Intel designed a set of integrated circuits for his technical prototype calculator, the Busicom 141-PF. The original plan required 12 custom chips, but three Intel employees, Marcian ‘Ted’ Hoff, Stan Mazor and Federico Faggin, adapted the design into a set of four chips, including the 4004 central processing unit (CPU), which was officially introduced in 2016. November 15, 1971, exactly 50 years ago.
Before the birth of the 4004 microprocessor which was only the size of a fingernail, the only way to achieve equivalent processing power was with a single-room computer, which was very cumbersome and space-consuming.
“This is a story about shrinking things down. And when you reduce the size of something, you increase the potential of the places it can occupy and the things it can achieve,” said Genevieve Bell, Intel Senior Fellow.
4004 is just a start – a slow start. Once Intel engineers demonstrated how the central processing unit could be used, the developers began building on their legacy, with each playing a role in shrinking chip size and increasing computing power exponentially.
“The 4004 was so revolutionary that it took Intel five years to train its engineers on how to build new products using microprocessors. Intel ultimately very successful in that endeavor and the rest is history,” said Stan Mazor, co-inventor of the Intel 4004.
‘Very successful’ may sound too simplistic.
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