updated 12:15 pm EST, Tue November 15, 2011
Intel 4004 now 40 years old
Intel marked one of the more important anniversaries in technology on Tuesday with the 40th anniversary of the Intel 4004. The 740KHz chip is generally considered the first real microprocessor, or a singular, small integrated circuit chip that served as the core of a device. It was made before November 15 for a Busicom 141-PF calculator as part of a four-chip set before Intel managed to get rights to sell it as a general purpose chip for anyone, which it did when the November 15, 1971 issue of Electronic News was published.
Technology at the time limited it to just four-bit math, 2,300 transistors, and a large 10 micron, or 10,000-nanometer, manufacturing process that could only be built on small two-inch wafers, limiting how many it could make and raising the price.
Intel's most advanced chips, such as its 10-core Xeon, now do 64-bit math, have as many as 2.6 billion transistors, and are built on 32 nanometer technology with 12-inch wafers. The company estimates that even a less ambitious Core i7 chip is over 350,000 times faster, even as it uses 5,000 times less power. Most of Intel's processors are now more expensive to make but also do considerably more.
Most of the real breakthroughs came from the eight-bit Intel 8080, which found its way into the original, 1975 MITS Altair 8800 and was powerful enough for companies like Microsoft to start working on general operating systems. The 4004 nonetheless paved a route for general processors that ultimately led to a humanity-wide shift towards personal computing that has culminated in smartphones and tablets. Today, even the smallest secondary chip inside a smartphone is likely to outperform the Intel 4004.