The slender smartphone you’re carrying in your pocket has more computing power than NASA needed to put a man on the moon. If you’re looking for someone to thank for that technological miracle, you can start with Gordon Moore.
Intel’s original microprocessor, the 4004. (Intel)
This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of “Moore’s Law,” a dictum that has guided the technological revolution from the earliest days of silicon through the iPhone 6.
On April 19, 1965, Gordon Moore — then director of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor — published an article in an industry trade journal with the informal title, “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits.”
In the Electronics article, Moore noted the exponential growth in the development of silicon and made a bold prediction: The density of electronic circuits would double every year, while the cost of producing them would drop at a similar rate. In 10 years, he surmised, we would see as many as 65,000 transistors crammed onto a single chip.
Here’s what Moore wrote in 1965:
“Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today.”
Moore’s vision was more spot-on than anyone could have imagined.
Moore is more
In the year Moore’s article appeared, Sylvania manufactured the first read-only memory (ROM) chips. They held a whopping 256 bits of data (enough to hold 32 characters, or about one-quarter of a tweet) and were programmed one bit at a time by a technician who carved the connections into the chip by hand.
Three years later, Moore and Robert Noyce left Fairchild to form a new company. They called it Intel. In 1971, Intel released its first general-purpose microprocessor: the 4004. It was the size of a thumbnail and held a whopping 2,300 transistors. Today’s Intel Broadwell-U processor is roughly the same size yet holds nearly 2 billion transistors. The chip costs one-60,000th as much to produce.
To honor the 50th anniversary of Moore’s observation, Intel released a series of brain-melting comparisons to what would have happened to other industries if they had followed the same growth trajectory.
* If automobiles improved at the rate of Moore’s law, they would go nearly 300,000 miles per hour, get 2 million miles to the gallon, and cost only 4 cents. They’d also be the size of ants.
* A trip to the moon that required 3 days and $25 billion in 1969 would take you one minute and cost about the same as a private plane.
* If skyscrapers increased in height at the same rate, they would be 35 times taller than Mount Everest. They’d also cost less than the price of your average PC.
* Had housing prices plummeted at the same rate as the cost of producing chips, you’d be able to buy a home for the price of a piece of candy.
Long arm of the law
It wasn’t until 1975 that Caltech professor Carver Mead dubbed the prediction “Moore’s Law.” But as Moore notes in a recent video interview, his “law” was really more of a guideline — an aspiration for others to follow or plan around.
“The message I was trying to get across was that integrated circuits were the road to less expensive electronics,” Moore said. “It really evolved from being a measure of what goes on in the industry to something that more or less drives the industry.”
Moore later revised his prediction to say that circuit density would double in two years instead of one. No matter — the world was transformed anyway.
And the best may be yet to come.
“The potential is there for this change to continue, and I’m continually amazed at where it seems to be going,” Moore adds. “Just remember: Whatever has been done can be outdone.”
Dan Tynan can be reached thusly: ModFamily1@yahoo.com.