Intel 4004 Turns 40

By Lisa Carlin

Intel introduced the world’s first commercially available microprocessor, the Intel 4004, forty years ago.

The 4004 microprocessors were not very powerful, though they were programmable, which meant they could be used for different applications, and was primarily used to perform simple mathematical operations in a calculator called Busicom. Just how not powerful was the 4004? Well, comparing the speed of the first microprocessor’s transistor with the latest generation transistors, can be like comparing the speed of a snail (5 meters per hour) with the speed of the Kenyan runner Patrick Makau Musyoki in his record-breaking marathon run.

The fastest processors in the world can achieve frequencies of about 4GHz. They compare to the 4004 processor like the sprinter Usain Bolt to a snail. Compared to the Intel 4004, today’s second-generation Intel Core processors are more than 350,000 times the performance and each transistor uses about 5,000 times less energy. In this same time period, the price of a transistor has dropped by a factor of about 50,000.

Since we are churning out facts, did you know, the manufacturing of a CPU or microprocessor is a highly complex and demanding process involving multiple hundreds of steps in ‘cleanrooms?’ Cleanrooms or manufacturing plants, contain air which is 1,000 times cleaner than a hospital’s operation theater . The building of one plant costs approximately $5 billion.

Justin Rattner (Chief technology officer, Intel): The sheer number of advances in the next 40 years will equal or surpass all of the innovative activity that has taken place over the last 10,000 years of human history.

Advances in chip technology are paving the way for an age when computing systems will be aware of what is happening around them, and anticipate people’s needs. Context-aware devices will be able to advise and guide us through the day more like a personal assistant than a desktop computer.

By the way, future microprocessors developed on Intel’s next-generation 22nm manufacturing process are due in systems starting next year. These microprocessors will be using the 3-D Tri-Gate transistors, a new transistor structure alogether.

What is a microprocessor did you ask? Read this.


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