Today is the 50th birthday of the Intel 4004 – the chip that changed it all

Today, chip maker Intel celebrates the 50th birthday of the Intel 4004 (picture above), the world’s first commercially available microprocessor.

Mr Pat Gelsinger, Intel CEO, said: “This is a sacred moment for technology. This (chip) is what made computing really take off!”

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger showing off the Intel 4004 chip during the Intel Innovation event last month. (Photo: Intel Corp)

With its launch in Nov 15, 1971, the 4004 paved the path for modern microprocessor computing as we know it. Without the 4004, we might not have smartphones that you are probably reading this story on. We will not have the computer that we are typing this story on. We will not have the cloud servers that this website is residing on. We will not have artificial intelligence that is helping us better our lives.

But yet, the 4004’s story started with a humble calculator. In 1969, Nippon Calculating Machine Corp. approached Intel about designing a set of integrated circuits for its engineering prototype calculator, the Busicom 141- PF.

The Busicom 141- PF calculator that sparked the invention of Intel 4004. (Photo: Intel Corp)

Intel engineers adapted the original plans for 12 custom chips and designed a set of four chips – including the 4004 – that met the challenge.

Ultimately, the 4004 – the size of a human fingernail – delivered the same computing power as the first electronic computer built in 1946 that filled an entire room. And consequently, it ushered in the modern computing era.

The Intel 4004, the chip that started it all. (Photo: Intel Corp)

The 4004 chip established a new random logic design methodology that subsequent generations of microprocessors would be built upon. So whether it is the Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, Apple M1 chip, or Google Tensor chip, all of them have Intel 4004 chip to thank.

“[Looking back at] 1970, it was clear that microprocessors would change the way that we design systems, switching from using hardware to software instead. But the speed with which microprocessors developed over time and were adopted by the industry was really surprising,” said Mr Federico Faggin, former Intel engineer who designed and produced the Intel 4004 with Mr Tedd Hoff and Mr Stan Mazor.

Mr Federico Faggin, co-inventor of Intel 4004. (Photo: Intel Corp_

The Intel 4004 held only 2,300 transistors. By 2010, an Intel Core processor with a 32 nm processing die features 560 million transistors. Today, the latest Apple M1 Max processor has 57 billion transistors.