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The microprocessor is something that most of us interact with every single day and, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated parts of tech.
I usually get strange looks when I ask people if they know what a microprocessor is.
Most know that a computer contains a microprocessor.
It is often called the heart of the computer since it is where most of the processing occurs. It runs programs and makes things happen, causing displays to show you information and accepting input from keyboards and mice to cause other things to happen.
The microprocessor doesn’t always directly control things but it controls the things that do control those things directly to work. If you aren’t confused yet, let’s look more closely.
The microprocessor has different origins but likely became popularized by Intel (intel.com) in the early 1970s with the Intel 4004 microprocessor. Although microprocessors were used as far back as the Second World War, this little beauty with its 2,300 transistors inside a small package really changed the world and made personal computers popular.
Motorola (Motorola.com) also improved things tremendously with its 6800 processor, which was eight-bit and hit the market in 1974. It was pretty pricey, and wasn’t really suited for producing a low-cost personal computer. It got down to about $200 in small quantities, but that was still a lot of money in the 1970s.
Chuck Peddle decided to change all of that. His name is often overlooked in the history books, and yet his contributions are almost immeasurable. Working with a small team at a company called MOS Technology, Peddle made a “clone” of the Motorola’s 6800 chip and called it the 6502. It performed all of the same functions but sold for only $25 in small quantities.
It was then that young engineer Steve Wozniak decided he could build a personal computer for his own amusement. With Steve Jobs and a growing team, Wozniak’s creation gave birth to Apple computer, now the world’s largest technology firm by revenue and assets.
The 6502 processor and its variants would go on to be the heart of many late-1970s and early-1980s inventions, such as the Commodore, Apple and Atari computers and, in 1985, even the Nintendo Entertainment System. The low cost meant that computers could be made at prices that many people could afford and helped contribute to the home computer revolution.
Today, things are different. Microprocessors are in almost everything we use. Have you ever tried to calculate how many you interact with daily? The number likely would surprise you. A typical day for me yields a high number.
The alarm clock that wakes me? It contains a microprocessor.
I turn on the TV to catch the morning news. There are at least two — one in the remote and at least one in the TV.
Off to the coffee maker and to heat up leftovers for breakfast in the microwave. There are another two.
If you are brushing your teeth with a fancy toothbrush that is another microprocessor.
Your car likely has many microprocessors (dozens for modern cars) but let’s count it as just one.
Did you check your smartphone? Now we are at eight.
At work, I use the cream in the fridge, which has a regulated temperature control unit. Another microprocessor.
I walk up to my main PC, which, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say has a single processor. But the monitor has at least one to control the on-screen display.
When I need to take my morning break, the urinal automatically flushes (yup, a microprocessor). And my hands magically cause the water to run at the tap. That’s another microprocessor. Even the hand towel dispenser has a microprocessor.
Before 10 a.m., I am up to 14 microprocessors in my life.
They are everywhere and in everything we use.
We might take them for granted, but microprocessors have changed our world and our lives.
If not for pioneers, such as Chuck Peddle, we’d likely have a different existence.
Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum (http://www.pcmuseum.ca) and the manager of information technology at ACIC / Methapharm. You can reach him via-email at [email protected] or on Twitter @sydbolton.