The First Microprocessor (and why hardly anybody knew about it until now)

A recent article (it’s a long read, so be prepared for some serious learning) reveals the story behind the world’s first microprocessor chip (integrated circuit) and the reason why both the developer, the team, and the chip itself have hardly been known outside a small, almost closed, circle of people for fifty years.

How it was made
“Ray walks me through how he and the team developed the system. One guy would work out the math, another would do the big-picture system design. Ray focused on the detailed implementation, sketching it out on paper. They built a physical prototype that put all the circuits in place. Bill programmed the Fortran simulator that helped check the team’s work.”

How it works
“Each of these logic gates represents a mathematical operation inside the computer, which takes information about air speed and temperature and altitude gathered by probes on the nose and belly of the plane, feeds it to quartz analog sensors inside the Central Air Data Computer box, and turns it into digital information.”

Far ahead of its time
"Fish at one point wrote that the 4-bit 4004 could “count to 16,” while the 20-bit CADC “was evaluating sixth order polynomial expressions rapidly enough to move the control surfaces of a dogfighting swing-wing supersonic fighter.” When I spoke to him recently, he said he had gone back and read through the documentation. “What Ray Holt did was absolutely brilliant,” he says. “Particularly given the timeframe. Ray was generations ahead, algorithmically and computationally.” "

The lead developer, Ray Holt, is still a maker, and uses a lifetime of learning to help young people develop the maker spirit.

The Maker
"He’s at Wilkinson County Christian Academy, where he teaches subjects like computer science, electronics, and drafting. An array of orange tubs at the back of the room holds resistors, capacitors, wire, and other tinkerer’s bits and pieces. “We are trying to find out what the kids are really interested in,” he says. “Some like to build, some like to program, some like electricity.” "

The story has much more to it, an excellent read, and a journey of discovery for the author, one of Wired Magazine’s senior editors, Sarah Fallon, herself a geek. Just to enhance the flavour, this is a family story.

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