5 decades ago, Intel unveiled the first commercially available microprocessor As NPR marks its 50th anniversary, we look back at an innovation that also changed the world in 1971: the unveiling of the first commercially produced microprocessor.

5 decades ago, Intel unveiled the first commercially available microprocessor

5 decades ago, Intel unveiled the first commercially available microprocessor

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As NPR marks its 50th anniversary, we look back at an innovation that also changed the world in 1971: the unveiling of the first commercially produced microprocessor.

NOEL KING, HOST:

NPR turned 50 this year. And to celebrate, we're marking some of the big events of 1971. If you're listening to this on a smartphone or on the internet or in a car full of computer chips, that is only possible because of something that happened this week 50 years ago - Intel unveiled the first commercially available microprocessor, the 4004.

DAVID C BROCK: The microprocessor is kind of the signature ingredient of the personal computing revolution.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

That's David C. Brock of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

A microprocessor is the brains of a computer, and they're in everything these days. Not so before 1971.

FEDERICO FAGGIN: The idea that you could put an entire computer on a chip - you know, it was still a pipe dream.

KING: Federico Faggin - he was part of the team at Intel that made that pipe dream a reality. His colleague, Ted Hoff, was working on a proposal for a new calculator and thought the design was too complicated.

TED HOFF: So I went to my boss - that was Bob Noyce, who was one of the founders of the company. And Bob said, well, if there's anything you can think of to make it simpler, why don't you see what you can come up with?

MARTINEZ: His simpler plan called for the brains of the calculator to be just a single chip, a microprocessor. Faggin figured out how to build it.

FAGGIN: The floodgates opened, so to speak. You know, because then you could make computers that were much smaller, cheaper.

KING: Smaller because a single chip could handle the work that a dozen chips used to do. And cheaper - the 4004 only cost 60 bucks when it launched. That means you could build a basic computer for a few hundred dollars instead of thousands of dollars.

Here's David C. Brock from the Computer History Museum.

BROCK: It has allowed kind of the form of digital computers to change from, you know, something the size of a washing machine to desktops, laptops, phones.

MARTINEZ: Something Ted Hoff says he knows personally.

HOFF: Because I have an implanted cardiac pacemaker. The pacemaker's just sitting there, monitoring my heart and determining whether it's doing its thing properly. It takes a microprocessor to do that type of control. Someone once asked me, isn't it great to have invented something that's saving your own life (laughter)?

MARTINEZ: And the impact of this little chip lives on all around us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TECHNOLOGIC")

DAFT PUNK: (Singing) Technologic. Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, trash it, change it, mail, upgrade it. Charge it, point it, zoom it, press it, snap it, work it...

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