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Home > Computer Articles > Microprocessor History

Brief History Of The Microprocessor

A Microprocessor is essentially a set of switches. Using photographic technology a massive set of electronic switches is superimposed onto a very small piece of silicon. Through the use of binary language, which consists of only two states; one and zero (on and off), these can be used to store information and perform operations on it. The invention of the microprocessor is at the heart of computing. The increasing miniaturization of microprocessor technology has led to smaller and smaller computers -- such as Cheap Laptops, netbooks, and smartphones.

The First Types

Before the first actual microprocessors many attempts were made to produce machines that could quickly, using switches, process information. The firsts of these did so manually (literally using belts and other means). The realization that complex numbers could be operated on by reducing them into simple binary numbers enabled these complex machines to be simplified since only a small set of scenarios need be accounted for.

The invention of the vacuum tube/transistor enabled these to be simplified further as a transistor is an electronic switch that is either on or off. The microprocessor built on this concept by producing a single integrated circuit, or chip, which in essence had several thousand transistors. Before this computers would fill warehouses, as vacuum tubes were large, not to mention not especially reliable.

The very first microprocessor is considered to be the Intel 4004. It was released in 1971 and was a 4 Bit processor.

8 Bit Designs

The word 'bits' is thrown around a lot in computing. A bit refers to one binary digit; a zero or one. In computer memory and processing this refers to the state of one switch. The transistors within the computer are arranged into groups in order to represent complex numbers, and instructions. An 8 Bit processor arranges information into groups of 8 bits. This allows for complex numbers to be represented but only up to a small limit: 255.

For early microprocessors 8 bits was a lot as, using programming languages, a programmer could put 8 bits together to represent even larger numbers. The problem with too few bits however is that some bits within the processor have to be used to access memory which is outside of the chip, typically RAM. Every place in memory has an address and being able to access more than 255 addresses is critical to working with a large amount of data.

Continuing with their pioneering in the development of microprocessors, Intel released the 8008 in 1972. It had an external 14 bit address and was in production until 1983.

16 Bit Designs

16 bit processors emerged mostly to work with larger data sets and improve. The first multi-chip 16 bit processor was released by National Semiconductor in 1973 and was the IMP-16. The same year the company also released it's first single-chip 16 bit microprocessor known as the National Semiconductor PACE.

Instead of creating a new design to stay current, Intel upgraded the 8008 into a 16 bit version they called the 8086. It was the first of the x86 family by which many modern PCs are powered.

32 Bit Designs

For nearly two decades 32 Bit designs proliferated. Doubling both the size of instructions as well as the amount of addressable memory, these designs didn't require much to improve performance. Instead CPU, and logic board speeds were the issue so 32 Bit designs were more than adequate.

One of the more significant of the 32 bit processors was the MC68000 released by Motorola. It was released in 1979 and continued to be in use today.

64 Bit Designs in Personal Computers

Most of today's computers are turning to 64 bit designs to handle dealing with very large amounts of data. This is needed especially as demand for 3D Graphics and fast video has risen. A 64 Bit Processor can work with up to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 addresses. That enables terabytes of addressable RAM, and reduces the need to look to the hard disk for data.


For a long time two types of microprocessors competed to be the standard in computing. CISC, which was the earlier, used complex instructions to perform operations on data. In the 1980s RISC emerged based on the idea few and simple instructions could push more operations through the microprocessor at a time. As memory has become much more affordable this has been less of a concern. VLIW is something of a hybrid between both concepts and has been embraced in personal computing. CISC and RISC do prevail however with CISC chips widely used in processors used in embedded devices like appliances & radios, and RISC still common is high performance video applications.

Multicore Designs

As so much memory has become available, to ends thought impossible at the time the microprocessor was born, multi-core processors have emerged. These single chips include multiple microprocessors and are quite common in today's home computers. Using multi-core microprocessors many more operations can be done simultaneously. This has led to very fast high performance computers.

Special Purpose Designs

There are also specialized applications of microprocessors outside of computing. Embedded applications make use of microprocessors within small devices, and appliances. There are also a number of specialized processors for performing specifically math, graphic, or sound processing. Microcontrollers are one example of a special-purpose microprocessor that are often used to keep track of time.

Additional Information

The following websites have resources dealing with the history, and development of micro processing technology.

New microprocessors are continuing to be developed which allow computers to become smaller and smaller. The current market trend is now focused on Cheap Laptops, compact & lightweight netbooks, or handheld smartphones -- all made possible by newer, smaller, and more powerful microprocessors.

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