We are celebrating 50 years since the first Intel 4004 processor

On November 15, 1971, Intel has unveiled the first commercial single-chip microprocessor, the Intel 4004, in an ad in Electronic News magazine. Fifty years later, look at the legacy of 4004 and the evolution of Intel.

intel 4004

In 1969, the Japanese manufacturer of calculators busicom hired Intel to create a chip for a calculator he designed. Intel invented a chipset (which was named MCS-4, abbreviation of "Micro Computer System") consisting of four integrated circuits (IC = Integrated Circuit) that dramatically simplified the internal design of the calculator.

In providing its solution, Intel developed and commercialized the world's first single-chip microprocessor, the Intel 4004. It also designed three supporting chips: the 4001, 4002 and 4003. Of these, the 4002 was a 40-byte RAM chip. memory.

The Intel 4004 chip was first released as part of it Busicom 141-PF calculator in the middle of 1971 (which you can simulate online from here, in your browser).

Following the renegotiation of its contract with Busicom, Intel was left free to sell the MCS-4 chipset to others. Intel introduced the Intel 4004 to the general market through an advertisement in the November 15, 1971 issue of Electronic News, which was a leading industry magazine at the time.

intel 4004 advThe original November 15, 1971 ad for the Intel 4004

The original 4004 ad essentially heralds "a new era of embedded electronics." The ad image shows the four MCS-4 chips looking large over a pair on a computer and the bold text declaring, "a microcomputer on a chip!"

Before the Intel 4004, central processing units ("CPUs") were usually one or more circuit boards filled with ICs and discrete electronics. Thanks to Intel innovations, this whole circuit could be compressed into a piece of silicon smaller than a fingernail. The radical shrinkage represented by 4004 made it possible in the next decade for small computers as well as home computers.

Was it really the first microprocessor?
There's some controversy about which chip was actually the first microprocessor, so historians generally add characteristic statements such as "single chip" and "commercial" to give a narrow focus to each company's achievement.

At the time of the Intel 4004 commercial debut in mid-1971, a multi-chip microprocessor was already flying on the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet of the U.S. Navy and competitors such as Texas-Instruments developed them their own microprocessors single chip.

intel 4004 1

But the Intel 4004 is particularly famous for marking the beginning of Intel's long and very successful microprocessor business, which dramatically shaped the evolution of the personal computer and continues to power billions of computers today.

If Intel had collapsed as a company in the early 1970s, it is very likely that we are now celebrating another company's first chip, as important as the 4004. But, in retrospect, we can look back and see that the 4004 it was the beginning of something very big.

Then and now: The Intel 4004 vs. an Intel Core i9-12900K
Microprocessor technology has changed dramatically since 1971, when Intel's 4004 CPU ran at just 740 KHz and contained only 2.250 transistors using a 10 micrometer process.

To show how dramatically things have changed, we compared the 4004 to Intel's latest top desktop CPU, the recently announced Intel Core i9-12900K. Here is a look at the specifications side by side:

CPU model
Intel 4004 (1971) *
Intel Core i9-12900K (2021) *
Public Date
15 November 1971
October 27 2021 *
(2021 dollars)
$ 401,41 $ 589,00
(1971 dollars)
$ 60,00 *
$ 87,82
Maximum clock speed
0,074 GHz
(740 kHz)
5,20 GHz
(5.200.000 kHz)
Bit size
Memory limit
0,000004 GB
(4 KB)
128 GB
(134.217.728 KB)
Energy use
1 W
125 241-W
Process Size
10.000 nm
(10 μm)
7 nm
(0,007 μm)
Die Size
12 mm² (4 mm × 3 mm)
215,25 mm² (20,5 mm × 10,5 mm) *
Transistor counting
~ 21.700.000.000

Of these statistics, one that really stands out is the staggering difference in the number of transistors on each chip, 2.250 versus 21,7 billion (we estimated Core i9 transistors based on chip surface area multiplied by transistor density). of Intel 7 process ).

The huge increase in the number of transistors is possible due to the dramatically smaller size of the process - process (7 nm vs. 10 μm), which allows much smaller characteristics in the chip, translating into a huge density of transistors in every square millimeter.

Also, the modern Intel chip contains much more than just a CPU in its mold. It includes a high-speed memory controller, a fully equipped GPU and many more built-in, in one package. We have definitely come a long way.

Intel 4004 applications
Due to its limited capabilities, and being quickly overshadowed by more powerful chips, such as the Intel 8008, the 4004 was less widely used than the subsequent Intel 8-bit chips. However, here is a list of some products that incorporate the 4004 CPU.

  • The Busicom 141-PF Desktop Calculator (1971)
  • The Intel SIM-4 Development System (1972)
  • The Intel Intellec 4 Development System (1973)
  • Bally Alley arcade bowling simulator (1974)
  • A prototype Bally Flicker pinball machine (1974)
  • Wang 1222 word processor (1975)
  • A Compuvote computerized voting machine (1976)

The legacy of the Intel 4004
Just five months after Intel announced 4004 in Electronic News, the company introduced the Intel 8008, the first 8-bit microprocessor. The 8008 ushered in the era of home computers, such as the Mark-8, whose appearance on the cover of Radio Electronics in 1974 gave a boost to the personal computer industry.

radio electronics 1974 mark 8

The July 1974 issue of Radio-Electronics introduced the 8-based Mark-8008 computer.

After 8008, Intel built it 8-bit 8080, and after 16-bit 8086 and beyond, various personal computers appeared that adopted each of its models. This rapid increase in microprocessor power soon left 4-bit 4004 in the dust, but the cultural impact of the chip had already been achieved.

As the first commercial microprocessor, the legacy of the 4004 is monumental. For the past 50 years, microprocessors have radically affected almost every industry, reshaped global economies, and transformed civilization.

It is difficult to appreciate the importance of the microprocessor, which one day could be considered as important as human dominance in fire. Where fire allowed us to change and manipulate physical matter, microprocessors allow us to manipulate information at will.

The miniature of technology did not stop with the invention of the microprocessor. Today, companies continue to incorporate features and functions that were previously available as separate chips into single-chip packages known as system-on-a-chip (SOC), such as Apple's M1 series.

The evolution of technology keeps Intel firmly on its feet and the story is not over yet. But we all know where it all started. From much later, in 1971.

Happy Birthday, Intel 4004!

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