As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It may surprise you that the microchip that we all know and love today was far from an obvious idea. Some of the paths that were being explored back then to cram more components into a smaller area seem odd now. But who hasn’t experienced hindsight of that sort, even on our own bench tops.
Let’s start the story of the microchip like any good engineering challenge should be started, by diving into the problem that existed at the time with the skyrocketing complexity of computing machines.
THE PROBLEM: TYRANNY OF NUMBERS
The ENIAC computer contained about 20,000 vacuum tubes and around 90,000 other components, all wired together using
5,000,000 500,000 hand-soldered joints ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while 5,000,000 is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.). By 1956, one tube would burn out every two days and it would take 15 minutes to find it. All that meant that the longest continuous run time was just short of five days, a far cry from today’s computers which remain on for their lifetime.