Happy 40th Birthday, 4004!

Ok, this could get really geeky really quick, but I’ll try to keep it readable.

It's not much to look at, is it?

Forty years ago, on November 15, 1971, Intel ran the first ad for a new type of integrated circuit:  the 4004.  Why is this important?  Because it was the first commercially available integrated CPU.

“What’s a CPU?”  It’s that thing inside your computer or smart phone that makes it more than an expensive paperweight.  It’s the brains that run the programs that let you read this article.  Most people who use computers don’t really care about what the CPU is or what it does, but for those of us in the business it’s almost unbelievable the progress we’ve made in the past 40 years.

“What kind of progress?”  The 4004 was a tiny, tiny CPU.  Not so much in size:  the package (in the picture above) was about an inch long.  The package for  the CPU in your computer is probably 1.5 inches square; not that much physically larger.  The chip of silicon in the 4004 (not visible, but under the gold lid on the package in the picture) is about a quarter-inch square, about the size of a pencil eraser.  The chip of silicon in your computer is probably about an half-inch square; again, not that much larger.

But thanks to Moore’s Law and the shrinking of the size of components on a chip, the CPU in your computer probably has in the neighborhood of 150,000 more components that the 4004.  Another way of looking at it:  if the CPU in your computer had been built using the same process as the 4004, it would about 8 feet square.  That’s not going to fit on your desk (or in your smart phone!) very well.

Thanks to the miracle of engineering, the 4004 led to the 8008, then the 8080, then the 8086, the 80286, … and so on to the Intel Core 2 Duo you might be using to read this (if you have a current, higher-performance computer).  It has been a slow, methodical process getting to this point; one that we tend to take for granted.  Seriously:  if your under the age of 30, computers have been ubiquitous for your entire life!  Only us old guys can remember what is was like 40 years before the 4004, when computers filled entire buildings and yet were less powerful than my phone.

And yet, there you are:  reading this article on a computer that has more horsepower that all the computers in the world combined at the time the 4004 came out.  What will the next 40 years bring?

FYI:  If you’re curious, The Register has a really nice article on the 4004 and the development of CPUs since then.  It’s a rather geeky read, though, so be forewarned.

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