25 chips that shook the world

Computers & Mobile

IEEE Spectrum has a great package of articles covering 25 Microchips that shook the world. All of your faves are there: the 555, the 6502, the 8088, the TI TMC0281 (which ET used to phone home), the PIC 16C84, the WD1402A (aka the first UART chip), the Z80, and the Sh-Boom coprocessor. The wha? Here’s the entry:

Two chip designers walk into a bar. They are Russell H. Fish III and Chuck H. Moore, and the bar is called Sh-Boom. No, this is not the beginning of a joke. It’s actually part of a technology tale filled with discord and lawsuits, lots of lawsuits. It all started in 1988 when Fish and Moore created a bizarre processor called Sh-Boom. The chip was so streamlined it could run faster than the clock on the circuit board that drove the rest of the computer. So the two designers found a way to have the processor run its own superfast internal clock while still staying synchronized with the rest of the computer. Sh-Boom was never a commercial success, and after patenting its innovative parts, Moore and Fish moved on. Fish later sold his patent rights to a Carlsbad, Calif.-based firm, Patriot Scientific, which remained a profitless speck of a company until its executives had a revelation: In the years since Sh-Boom’s invention, the speed of processors had by far surpassed that of motherboards, and so practically every maker of computers and consumer electronics wound up using a solution just like the one Fish and Moore had patented. Ka-ching! Patriot fired a barrage of lawsuits against U.S. and Japanese companies. Whether these companies’ chips depend on the Sh-Boom ideas is a matter of controversy. But since 2006, Patriot and Moore have reaped over US $125 million in licensing fees from Intel, AMD, Sony, Olympus, and others. As for the name Sh-Boom, Moore, now at IntellaSys, in Cupertino, Calif., says: “It supposedly derived from the name of a bar where Fish and I drank bourbon and scribbled on napkins. There’s little truth in that. But I did like the name he suggested.”

The piece has all sorts of interesting historical tidbits this.


One of the articles in the section is by David X. Cohen, co-creator of Futurama. The introduction to the piece reads:

On 14 November 1999, an episode of “Futurama,” the animated sci-fi comedy series conceived by “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, jolted computer geeks with a display of technological acumen absolutely unprecedented in prime-time entertainment. In the episode, “Fry and the Slurm Factory,” a character named Professor Farnsworth points his F-ray at the head of the show’s famously ill-tempered robot, Bender. It reveals a little rectangle, apparently a chip, labeled “6502.”

In the article itself, Cohen writes:

I spent a good percentage of my high school years programming the Apple II Plus in 6502 assembly language, so I have fond memories of long nights alone with this chip. My greatest 6502 achievement was a video game I called Zoid that was played heavily by me and my father and no one else. Incidentally, Zoid incorporated digitized speech (me saying the word “Zoid,” slowed down to make it mightier), which was pretty rare at the time. The digital audio for that single syllable used much more memory than the entire program. I tried to sell the game to Broderbund Software, but I knew I was in for bad news when the return letter they sent me started with a misspelling of my name.

The entire special section is eminently readable, educational, entertaining, and definitely worth your time.

25 Microchips That Shook the World

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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