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Intel celebrates 50 years of the 4004, the grand daddy of the modern CPU

Intel's 4004 microprocessor
(Image credit: Intel)

On November 15th 1971, Intel released its 4004 processor. Its release marked one of the key foundations of the modern computer age. Some of the core concepts from this processor live on today in virtually every piece of technology. Without it, we might still be playing board games, or relying on pigeons for communication. Well, not really.

The 4004 was the first commercially available microprocessor and it was absolutely a pioneering piece of tech. It combined different functions onto a single silicon chip with a high operating frequency and transistor density that was well ahead of anything available at the time. It also used cutting edge manufacturing technology.

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Prior to 1971, Intel primarily focused on semiconductor memory, lacking the expertise to produce a general-purpose processor. Then, in 1969, Nippon Calculating Machine Corporation approached Intel to design a processor for its Busicom 141-PF printing calculator. Intel suggested a four chip design, one of which could be programmed for various tasks. Electronics would never be the same. To meet these design goals, it hired Italian chip designer Fredrico Faggin. Faggin’s expertise no doubt helped Intel to achieve the dominant position it enjoys today. Interestingly, each 4004 die contains a tiny F.F. in the corner.

Some of the 4004's key specifications include a 740 KHz clock speed, 10 micrometer (10000nm) lithography and a total of 2300 transistors. Compare that to a modern CPU at around 4.5 GHz, 7 nanometer lithography and billions of transistors and it’s clear we’ve come a long way.

A prototype of the original Busicom calculator is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California. This not so young geek would like to visit there someday.

The technology and expertise Intel learned from designing these early chips eventually led to the release the 8086 processor in 1978, which was the processor used in IBM’s original PC. With that, the modern PC was born. The roots of our gaming machines can be traced back to these early days. Where will we be 50 years from now? Maybe Star Citizen will have a release date by then.

You won't be able to grab a 4004 on our Black Friday CPU deals page, but one of its great great great grandchildren will be worth a look.

Chris Szewczyk

Chris' gaming experiences go back to the mid-nineties when he conned his parents into buying an 'educational PC' that was conveniently overpowered to play Doom and Tie Fighter. He developed a love of extreme overclocking that destroyed his savings despite the cheaper hardware on offer via his job at a PC store. To afford more LN2 he began moonlighting as a reviewer for VR-Zone before jumping the fence to work for MSI Australia. Since then, he's gone back to journalism, enthusiastically reviewing the latest and greatest components for PC & Tech Authority, PC Powerplay and currently Australian Personal Computer magazine and PC Gamer. Chris still puts far too many hours into Borderlands 3, always striving to become a more efficient killer.