The Microprocessor at 40 – The Birth of Electronics

Four great columns from Jack Ganssle of Embedded magazine. If you’re in IT, or interested in ham radio, you’ll love these columns.

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.
—Bill Gates

The microprocessor at 40–The birth of electronics: The oceans were great barriers in these pre-radio days, but through truly heroic efforts Cyrus Field and his associates laid the first transatlantic cable in 1857. Consider the problems faced: with neither active elements nor amplifiers a wire 2,000 miles long, submerged thousands of feet below the surface, had to faithfully transmit a signal. Two ships set out and met mid-ocean to splice their respective ends together. Sans GPS, they relied on celestial sights to find each other. Without radio-supplied time ticks, those sights were suspect (four seconds of error in time can introduce a mile of error in the position).

From light bulbs to computers: Meanwhile the Germans were sinking ships faster than the allies could build replacements, in the single month of June, 1942 sending 800,000 tons to the sea floor. Britain was starving and looked doomed. The allies were intercepting much of the Wehrmacht’s signal traffic, but it was encrypted using a variety of cryptography machines, the Enigma being the most famous.

The semiconductor revolution: Actually, that last clause is not correct. ICs were hard to get. The nation was going to the moon, and by 1963 the Apollo Guidance Computer used 60% of all of the ICs produced in the US, with per-unit costs ranging from $12 to $77 ($88 to $570 today) depending on the quantity ordered. One source claims that the Apollo and Minuteman programs together consumed 95% of domestic IC production.

Microprocessors change the world: It’s claimed the iPad 2 has about the compute capability of the Cray 2, 1985’s leading supercomputer. The Cray cost $35 million more than the iPad. Apple’s product runs 10 hours on a charge; the Cray needed 150 KW and liquid Flourinert cooling. My best guess pegs an iPhone at 100 billion transistors. If we built one using the ENIAC’s active element technology, the phone would be about the size of 170 Vertical Assembly Buildings (the largest single-story building in the world). That would certainly discourage texting while driving. Weight? 2,500 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.