Intel 4004, the first commercially available microprocessor, celebrates 50 years

Big picture: Intel forever changed the trajectory of computing – and, indeed, human history – with the introduction of the first commercially available microprocessor. Intel 4004 was released 50 years ago, on November 15, 1971, but it all started two years earlier when the Japanese corporation Nippon Calculating Machine Corp. asked Intel to develop a set of integrated circuits for a prototype calculator called Busicom 141-PF.

Like Intel recountsThe original plans called for a dozen custom chips, but the company’s engineers were able to adapt the design to just four chips, including the 4004 central processing unit (CPU).

Up to this point, room-sized computers were required to achieve similar levels of processing power.

The Intel 4004 was a 4-bit chip built on a 10 micron node. It contains 2300 transistors and operates at a clock frequency of 740 kHz. By comparison, a modern CPU can contain billions of transistors and trillions of operations per second

Intel Senior Scientist Genevieve Bell said it really is a story about diminishing things. “And as you shrink them, you increase the potential of the places they can go and the things they can go through,” Bell added.

Related links: History of microprocessors and personal computers

Stan Mazor, co-author of the Intel 4004, said its design was so revolutionary that it took Intel about five years to train engineers on how to create new microprocessor-based products.

However, the direction of progress has not always been clear. “The possibilities, for example, of a microprocessor of incredible power as a hearing aid were not evident in 1971,” Faggin said.

Something else that Faggin did not expect was the speed at which microprocessors have evolved over time and been adopted by the industry. Today it is difficult to imagine a world without them, and given the constant shortage of chips, we value their presence more than ever.

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