Micro History Part 2

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 2 - The Revolution Begins

Computers began to get smaller in the 1960's with the introduction of Digital Equipment Corporation's Minicomputers. These DEC minicomputers went on to play an interesting part in the Microcomputer Revolution and I'll tell you about that later, but minicomputers were still designed for businesses, not people.

Advances in electronics brought about the microcomputer revolution. The room-sized first mainframe computer - the ENIAC - was replaced by the technology of the transistor, invented by engineers working at Bell Laboratories in the early 1950's. William Shockley is credited as the co-inventor of the transistor, and he left Bell in 1956 to form his own company, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories, in what was to become California's Silicon Valley.

One of the engineers working for him in his new company was a young man named Robert Noyce, a talented individual from a small town in Iowa. Noyce and several other engineers soon left Shockley to form a new company, Fairchild Electronics, financed by a venture capitalist. While working at Fairchild, Noyce came up with the idea for the integrated circuit around 1959, and is credited as its inventor. He worked his way to become manager of the Fairchild operation, but he longed to own and operate his own company.

In 1968 Noyce and another engineer, Gordon Moore, left Fairchild to start their own electronics firm, which they named the Intel Corporation. The company started with 12 employees and their first year revenues were $ 2,672.00. Now, over a quarter century later, Intel's innovations have changed the world.

Intel focused initially on making semiconductor computer memory - practical and affordable. Within a year, Intel had rolled out its first product - the 3101 64-bit memory chip. Intel continued to successfully develop memory chips, but in 1971 the event happened which changed the world and launched the microcomputer revolution.

A Japanese calculator company named Busicom had approached Intel back in 1969 about designing a set of chips for a programmable calculator and had advanced Intel $ 60,000. Their original design had called for multiple custom chips, but Ted Hoff, a young Intel engineer, thought it was too complex. His solution was to develop a single-chip, general purpose logic device which would retrieve its instructions from semiconductor memory. He envisioned this solution to enable an off-the-shelf processor to handle many different functions, and eliminate a lot of custom circuit design.

Hoff's vision was transformed into silicon by a team of engineers and designers, and within several months the Intel 4004 microprocessor was created. 1/8"wide and 1/6"long, and consisting of 2300 transistors, this revolutionary computer on a tiny chip had as much computing power as it's ancient great-grandfather, the room-sized ENIAC. Intel decided to buy the rights to this product back from the Japanese company, which had run into financial problems - and the rest - as they say - is history.

The Intel 4004 was introduced by the end of 1971, sold for $ 200, and was followed less than a year later by the 8008, an 8-bit microprocessor which sold for $ 360. For the first time, affordable computer power was available to everyone.

Next week we'll learn how the Intel 8008 caught the attention of a couple Seattle high school kids, and how they fit into the microcomputer revolution.

On to Segment 3, "The Washington State Connection"

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