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Happy Birthday 4004!

Federico Faggin pointing at an enlarged die of the 4004, the first microprocessor, born on 1971. Image credit: Intel Free Press

I started to work in 1971 and after a few months I made my first acquaintance with the 4004. It was an extraordinary chip, the first microprocessor ever, firstly manufactured in March 1971, fifty years ago, packaging an unbelievable 2,300 transistors. I remember how excited all people around me were, when the first batch of 4004 were received (I was in the software group and we were ecstatic by another innovation, the possibility to use punched tape rather than having to insert instruction code via mechanical switches).

I guess this gives you a pretty good idea of the stone age programming.

IEEE Spectrum is celebrating the 50 years of the Intel 4004 in an article that I feel is a must read for the elderly to go back to those times and for all the others who don’t have a clue of what it was to be in electronics and software 50 years ago when all started.

Today’s Apple M1 chip has 16 billion transistors (7 million times more) and the largest chip so far, Cerebra, has 2.6 trillion transistors, clustered in 850,000 cores (individual processing units), that is over a billion times more than that first microprocessor.

Yet, the challenges faced by Federico Faggin and the other engineers who created that first chip were immense. There were basically no tools to support the design, and the placement of the 2,300 transistors (as drawing on the die) had to be managed manually.

Who would have imagined that in 50 years time that single chip would have changed the world? For sure I didn’t.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.