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Pre-PC Microprocessor History

It is interesting to note that the microprocessor had only existed for 10 years prior to the creation of the PC! The microprocessor was invented by Intel in 1971. The PC was created by IBM in 1981. Now nearly 20 years later, we are still using systems based more or less on the design of that first PC (and mostly backward compatible with it). The processors powering our PCs today are still backward compatible in many ways with the 8088 selected by IBM in 1981.

The story of the development of the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, can be read in Chapter 1, "Personal Computer Background." The 4004 processor was introduced on November 15, 1971, and originally ran at a clock speed of 108KHz (108,000 cycles per second, or just over one-tenth a megahertz). The 4004 contained 2,300 transistors and was built on a 10 micron process. This means that each line, trace, or transistor could be spaced about 10 microns (millionths of a meter) apart. Data was transferred four bits at a time, and the maximum addressable memory was only 640 bytes. The 4004 was designed for use in a calculator, but proved to be useful for many other functions because of its inherent programmability.

In April 1972, Intel released the 8008 processor, which originally ran at a clock speed of 200KHz (0.2MHz). The 8008 processor contained 3,500 transistors and was built on the same 10 micron process as the previous processor. The big change in the 8008 was that it had an 8-bit data bus, which meant it could move data 8 bits at a time—twice as much as the previous chip. It could also address more memory, up to 16KB. This chip was primarily used in dumb terminals and general-purpose calculators.

The next chip in the lineup was the 8080, introduced in April 1974, running at a clock rate of 2MHz. Due mostly to the faster clock rate, the 8080 processor had 10 times the performance of the 8008. The 8080 chip contained 6,000 transistors and was built on a 6 micron process. Like the previous chip, the 8080 had an 8-bit data bus, so it could transfer 8 bits of data at a time. The 8080 could address up to 64KB of memory, significantly more than the previous chip.

It was the 8080 that helped start the PC revolution, as this was the processor chip used in what is generally regarded as the first personal computer, the Altair 8800. The CP/M operating system was written for the 8080 chip, and Microsoft was founded and delivered its first product: Microsoft BASIC for the Altair. These initial tools provided the foundation for a revolution in software because thousands of programs were written to run on this platform.

In fact, the 8080 became so popular that it was cloned. A company called Zilog formed in late 1975, joined by several ex-Intel 8080 engineers. In July of 1976, it released the Z-80 processor, which was a vastly improved version of the 8080. It was not pin compatible, but instead combined functions such as the memory interface and RAM refresh circuitry, which allowed cheaper and simpler systems to be designed. The Z-80 also incorporated a superset of 8080 instructions, meaning it could run all 8080 programs. It also included new instructions and new internal registers, so software that was designed for the Z-80 would not necessarily run on the older 8080. The Z-80 ran initially at 2.5MHz (later versions ran up to 10MHz), and contained 8,500 transistors. The Z-80 could access 64KB of memory.

Radio Shack selected the Z-80 for the TRS-80 Model 1, its first PC. The chip was also the first to be used by many pioneering systems including the Osborne and Kaypro machines. Other companies followed, and soon the Z-80 was the standard processor for systems running the CP/M operating system and the popular software of the day.

Intel released the 8085, its follow up to the 8080, in March of 1976. Even though it predated the Z-80 by several months, it never achieved the popularity of the Z-80 in personal computer systems. It was popular as an embedded controller, finding use in scales and other computerized equipment. The 8085 ran at 5MHz and contained 6,500 transistors. It was built on a 3-micron process and incorporated an 8-bit data bus.

Along different architectural lines, MOS Technologies introduced the 6502 in 1976. This chip was designed by several ex-Motorola engineers who had worked on Motorola's first processor, the 6800. The 6502 was an 8-bit processor like the 8080, but it sold for around $25, whereas the 8080 cost about $300 when it was introduced. The price appealed to Steve Wozniak who placed the chip in his Apple I and Apple II designs. The chip was also used in systems by Commodore and other system manufacturers. The 6502 and its successors were also used in computer games, including the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) among others. Motorola went on to create the 68000 series, which became the basis for the Apple Macintosh line of computers. Today those systems use the PowerPC chip, also by Motorola, and a successor to the 68000 series.

All these previous chips set the stage for the first PC chips. Intel introduced the 8086 in June 1978. The 8086 chip brought with it the original x86 instruction set that is still present on x86-compatible chips such as the Pentium III. A dramatic improvement over the previous chips, the 8086 was a full 16-bit design with 16-bit internal registers and a 16-bit data bus. This meant that it could work on 16-bit numbers and data internally and also transfer 16-bits at a time in and out of the chip. The 8086 contained 29,000 transistors and initially ran at up to 5MHz. The chip also used 20-bit addressing, meaning it could directly address up to 1MB of memory. Although not directly backward compatible with the 8080, the 8086 instructions and language was very similar and allowed older programs to be ported over quickly to run. This later proved important to help jumpstart the PC software revolution with recycled CP/M (8080) software.

Although the 8086 was a great chip, it was expensive at the time and more importantly required an expensive 16-bit support chip and board design. To help bring costs down, in 1979, Intel released a crippled version of the 8086 called the 8088. The 8088 processor used the same internal core as the 8086, had the same 16-bit registers, and could address the same 1MB of memory, but the external data bus was reduced to 8 bits. This allowed support chips from the older 8-bit 8085 to be used, and far less expensive boards and systems could be made. It is for these reasons that IBM chose the crippled chip, the 8088, for the first PC.

This decision would affect history in several ways. The 8088 was fully software compatible with the 8086, so it could run 16-bit software. Also, because the instruction set was very similar to the previous 8085 and 8080, programs written for those older chips could be quickly and easily modified to run. This allowed a large library of programs to be quickly released for the IBM PC, thus helping it become a success. The overwhelming blockbuster success of the IBM PC left in its wake the legacy of requiring backward compatibility with it. In order to maintain the momentum, Intel has pretty much been forced to maintain backward compatibility with the 8088/8086 in most of the processors it has released since then.

In some ways the success of the PC, and the Intel architecture it contains, has limited the growth of the personal computer. In other ways, however, its success has caused a huge number of programs, peripherals, and accessories to be developed, and the PC to become a de facto standard in the industry. The original 8088 processor used in the first PC contained close to 30,000 transistors and ran at less than 5MHz. Intel recently introduced a version of the Pentium III Xeon with 2MB of on-die cache that has a whopping 140 million transistors, the largest ever in a single processor chip. Both AMD and Intel are manufacturing processors that run at 1GHz (AMD has some bragging rights there; it beat Intel to 1GHz by two days), and both have demonstrated processors running in the 2GHz range. And the progress doesn't stop there, as according to Moore's Law, processing speed and transistor counts are doubling every 1.5 to 2 years.

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