Federico Faggin’s Processors
In 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the invention of the microprocessor, I had lunch with Federico Faggin who translated Ted Hoff’s architecture of the 4004 into silicon.
“I guess I was trained to be a masochist,” Faggin told me, “I’m still trying to impress my father or something – still with a need to do something people haven’t done before.”
Born in Vincenza Italy with a doctorate from the University of Padua his urge to work on pioneering projects led him to California in 1968 just three years after graduation.
The company he joined was Fairchild. There he pioneered the development of silicon gate MOS technology and designed the world’s first commercial chip to use it – an analogue multiplexer with decoding logic called the 3708.
However the year Faggin joined Fairchild was the same year that the company’s founders Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore resigned from the company with Andy Grove in order to found Intel.
Faggin was only at Fairchild for a couple of years before his hunger to be at the forefront of semiconductor technology brought him to Intel in the Spring of 1970.
“If you wanted to do wonderful things,” he said, “Intel was the place to be”.
“When I joined Intel it only had a hundred people. It wasn’t making any money. It was struggling to become a viable company,” he recounted, “the semiconductor memory business which Intel pioneered wasn’t coming on as fast as expected. Times were not good and that opened the door to Busicom.”
Busicom had offered Intel a contract for custom chips for a calculator. Cash-strapped and productless in 1969 the Intel management had taken it on.
“I was hired from Fairchild to implement the project” says Faggin, “Intel was delinquent on the contract when I joined the company.”
Shortly after he started at Intel Faggin recalls a Busicom engineer Masatoshi Shima coming over from Japan.
“Shima was furious when he found that no work had been done since his visit approximately six months earlier’ recalled Faggin, “he kept saying: ‘I came here to check. There is nothing to check. This is just an idea.’ “
The situation spurred Faggin to Herculean efforts.” I worked like a madman – 12 to 16 hours a day. “The early Intel was a tough environment – very results-oriented – a ‘get it done’ mentality. You had to perform, you had to make it happen, you couldn’t coast even for a week. People got burned out but they were a bunch of good guys – the density of good guys was very high.”
The 4004 was launched in June 1971. Faggin’s next trick was the 8008 which went into what could, arguably, be called the world’s first PC, the French MISTRAL machine, launched around 1972/3.
The came Faggin’s third big trick for Intel – the 8080 – which had first production run was in December 1973.
Intel introduced the chip to the market in April 1974 at a price of $360. The response was so great that the first five months of shipments repaid the 8080′s development costs.
“The 8080 really created the microprocessor market’ says Faggin it was immediately used in hundreds of different products. The microprocessor had come of age.
One of the hundreds of applications was the Altair computer made by Ed Roberts’ MITS company in 1975 which is often cited as the world’s first PC and for which the then teenaged duo Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote the BASIC interpreter.
The 8080 was Faggin’s Intel swansong. He left in 1974 to found Zilog and create the hugely successful Z80.
“In May or June 1975 we got financing – half a million from Exxon,” recalled Faggin, “Exxon had an aim to create an information business – a wet dream – we were part of a wet dream without knowing it!”
However his biggest trick was about to happen.
“By early 1976,” said Faggin, “the Z80 was a reality.”