An ode to Intel’s 4004 processor: the one that started it all

1971 – what a year that was – and I’m afraid I can remember most of it. In November 1971, the Mariner 9 satellite orbited Mars, the album Led Zeppelin IV was released and Oman was granted independence from the United Kingdom. I met Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in the 1970s – but that’s a different story altogether.

And in 1971 Intel started advertising a chip called the 4004 (opens in new tab). I don’t remember noticing that at the time but the semiconductor company has dominated my working life from 1987, until, er, now.

Intel historian Elizabeth Jones claims a lot for the introduction of the 4004. She says that we would not have smartphones (opens in new tab)AI (opens in new tab) that recognizes facial expressions, live mapping systems and the rest. She doesn’t say that Intel failed spectacularly in the late 1990s to recognize that smartphones and tablets would come to overturn the hegemony of desktop and even notebook PCs.

(Image credit: Intel)

Originally, the 4004 was designed to be the engine for a Japanese company to produce a prototype calculator using 12 custom chips, but engineers Ted Hoff, Stan Mazor and Federico Faggin were able to produce four devices – including the 4004 – in November 1971. But it wasn’t until five years later that Intel was able to draw on its ideas and really start to “shrink the die”.

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