Archives:The Social Construction of the Microprocessor A Japanese and American Story



The microprocessor, also known popularly as the computer on a chip, is among the most ubiquitous and powerful technologies of the late twentieth century. In the 1970s, soon after its invention, the microprocessor found application in many small systems such as test equipment, small business computers, intelligent terminals, workstations, word processors, communications controllers, private branch exchanges, point-of-sale terminals, and multiplexers.3 Since the 1970s, as cost decreased and functionality increased, new applications emerged, including electronic games, control systems for automobiles and domestic appliances, and personal computers.

The microprocessor offered significant design opportunities because it decreased the size and cost of products in which it was embedded, enabled more flexible product use, and reduced manufacturing costs. For these and probably many other reasons, it rapidly achieved widespread use. Only eight years after its invention, 75 million were being sold each year.4 That number has continued to grow, and the average American adult today owns tens, if not hundreds, of microprocessors-almost always embedded in some more complex technological system.

It is not surprising, then, that credit for this invention has been widely discussed-especially in the past several years, since an obscure inventor name Gilbert Hyatt was awarded a U.S. patent, to the consternation of the semiconductor industry.5 With many inventions there is a tendency, after their significance becomes widely appreciated, to reconstruct the history, making the story simpler, more rational, and more heroic. This is the case with the microprocessor, which is widely credited solely to the engineering genius of Marcian "Ted" Hoff at Inte1.

It is not the intention of this paper to disparage the accomplishments of either Hoff or Intel. Hoff is an extraordinarily able and accomplished engineer who played a significant role in the development of Intel's first microprocessor, the 4004; while Intel has repeatedly demonstrated its capabilities as it became a dominant force in the world semiconductor industry. But the story of the invention and development of the microprocessor is not nearly so simple or straightforward as it is generally told.

This paper aims instead to tell a more interesting and complex story by examining the historical context in which the 4004 was developed, both outside and inside Intel. We will show, for example, that the conceptualization of the microprocessor, which was Hoffs principal contribution to the 4004 project, was independently conceived in other companies and that Hoff was aware of some of this work;

The Social Construction of the Microprocessor that Hoff had a relatively minor role in the hard work of making the 4004 a commercial reality (i.e., the detailed logical design, engineering, applications development, and marketing); that the stimulus and financing for the 4004 project came from a Japanese company, not from Intel; and that Intel did not originally embrace the microprocessor as an important part of its product line. By considering corporate and even national cultures, we can gain a new and deeper perspective on this important invention.

Citation and Link to Full Article

William Aspray, “The Social Construction of the Microprocessor A Japanese and American Story,”  in Facets: New Perspectivies on the History of Semiconductors, ed. Andrew Goldstein & William Aspray (New Brunswick: IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 1997), 215-267

The Social Construction of the Microprocessor, A Japanese and American Story (pdf)