Federico Faggin dips a chip

Early 50th birthday greetings to car maker and would-be space traveller Elon Musk, born on 28 June 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa, and to information technology specialist Julian Assange, born on 3 July 1971 in Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

Also wishing a belated happy 50th to the Intel 4004, which IEEE Spectrum magazine calls “the world’s first microprocessor – a complete general-purpose CPU on a single chip”.

The 4004 became available for commercial sale in March 1971. IEEE Spectrum, published by the New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, says its release “marked the beginning of Intel’s rise to global dominance in the processor industry”.

The Computer Wiki calls the 4004 “history’s first monolithic CPU, fully integrated in one small chip”, adding that “such a feat of integration was made possible by the use of the then new silicon gate technology, which allowed twice the number of random-logic transistors and an increase in speed by a factor of five compared to the incumbent technology”.

The 4004 story starts in Japan with engineer Masatoshi Shima, working for Busicom, a Japanese company making office calculators and looking to upgrade its product line.

As Spectrum explains, in April 1969, Busicom signed a deal with California-based technology company Intel to develop a custom set of chips for a new version of its calculator.

Shima, Spectrum says, was sent to California to work with the Intel development team. He “proposed an eight-chip system: three chips to interface with peripherals such as the keyboard and printer, one chip to store data, one chip to store program code, and two chips that together would make up the CPU”.

Marcian “Ted” Hoff, who was leading the Intel effort, proposed halving the chip count: “One 256-byte program memory chip, dubbed the 4001, one 40-byte data memory chip, the 4002, a peripheral interface chip, the 4003, and one CPU chip, the 4004. The whole system – called the MCS-4 – would be 4-bit, significantly reducing the number of pins needed to interconnect the chips.”

In Japan, Busicom went to work writing software for its new calculator, and Intel came up with production schedules for the MCS-4.

Before work at Intel could commence, however, the company found its production team lacked one crucial member: a chip designer, the person who would work out “exactly how and where transistors and other components are to be patterned on the physical chip”. 

Enter Federico Faggin, born in Vicenza, Italy, on 1 December 1941.

In an interview published by the Engineering and Technology History Wiki, Faggin says “one of the best gifts I was ever given was a Meccano when I was nine years old. I really enjoyed the Meccano so much because I could build things. I wasn’t following any instructions; just my imagination. It was very empowering.”

He attended a technical high school, Istituto Tecnico Industriale Statale Alessandro Rossi, where he focused on studies of radio technology and electronics. At 19 he went to work in the research and development department of Olivetti, the renowned Italian electronics company best known as a maker of office equipment such as typewriters and fax machines. 

1024px man who designed the worlds first microprocessor
Credit: Intel Free Press / Wikimedia Commons

While there, he designed and built a computer. It was “about as wide as a door frame and about seven feet (two metres) high,” Faggin says. “It was an adaptation of an American concept published in a technical magazine.”

His idea was to “scale it up and build an experimental computer and see what you could do with something like that. This computer had a 4K-word magnetic core memory. A word was 12 bits. I designed all the central control and built the machine.”

Asked where his understanding of digital concepts came from, Faggin says he “took a course at Olivetti at the beginning of my employment. It was about one month long. Then I bought some books and learned from them.”

After Olivetti, Faggin resumed his studies, earning a degree in physics from the University of Padua, Italy, in 1965.

Faggin came to the US in early 1968 to work for Fairchild Semiconductor, a pioneering company in the “Silicon Valley” starting to take shape in northern California.

“Within a short period of time at Fairchild,” he says, “I developed the silicon gate technology, which was the first process technology that allowed the manufacturing of self-aligned gate MOS (metal oxide silicon) integrated circuits. This was the technology that made possible the fabrication of semiconductor memories and the microprocessor.”

Faggin continued to design products for Intel until 1974, when he and his partners formed their own microprocessor production business, Zilog, in 1974.

In 2011, Faggin and his wife, Elvia, founded the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation, “a non-profit organisation dedicated to the scientific study of consciousness”.

The foundation “supports research programs at US universities and institutes to advance the understanding of consciousness through theoretical and experimental research”.

Read more:

Please login to favourite this article.