Ted Hoff’s General Purpose Microprocessor

“…even though science and technology are wonderful, what really gets them out there for people to use is to have businesses built around them. It takes savvy businessmen as well as savvy technologists to make that work.”

Tedd Hoff


Ted Hoff had access to then state-of-the-art vacuum tube circuits in high school. In 1954, he graduated and gained access to then-new transistors and magnetic core memory. Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s degree when came to Stanford, earning a Ph.D. in 1962.

During that time, he talked to Rex Rice, an on-campus recruiter for Fairchild Semiconductor. Particularly, the Traitorous Eight founded Fairchild and Doriot student Arthur Rock funded the business.

Hoff believed the new field of integrated circuits could work well for memory, replacing the clunky and relatively enormous core memory. Eventually, this led to a referral to Bob Noyce. He worked at Fairchild but was starting a new company, Intel. Evidently, Noyce intended Intel to focus on semiconductor memory and was searching for somebody with Hoff’s background.


In 1970, while waiting for the technology to mature, Intel decided to build one-off chips for the desktop calculator market. Eventually, Hoff was assigned to assist building a chip for Japanese company Busicom. At first, Japanese engineers were expected to do all the work with Hoff acting as a liaison and coordinator.

However, Hoff noticed the Japanese design was sub-optimal. There were about a dozen chips and the entire system appeared needlessly complex. Hoff raised his concerns to Noyce who encouraged him to make a “backup” design.

Hoff’s design incorporated random access memory and programmability. It was vastly simpler yet overall more powerful by being programmable rather than single-purpose. After a meeting, the customer adopted Hoff and Intel’s design.

Federico Faggin joined Intel and refined Hoff’s idea, optimizing the general-purpose chip to take advantage of Intel technology. By January 1971, the team had a fully functional microprocessor.

The Microprocessor is Born

Their original goal was an embedded system, not a PC chip. Embedded systems are specialty chips that people never see; they make other machines work. The final chip, renamed the Intel 4004, contained between 2,100 and 2,300 transistors, depending upon how one counted. In 1974, Intel’s 4004 was followed by the 8008 then the 8080. That chip became the foundation of the Altair, the first microcomputer. The Altair inspired a young Bill Gates and Co. to start a software company and a young Steve Jobs and Wozniak to form a computer company.

Integrated Circuits (Microchips)

In early electronic computers, each circuit involved a vacuum tube. They were large, relatively slow, and consumed a lot of power.

Shockley, Brattain, and Bardeen created the semiconductor. Their circuits eliminated the need for vacuum tubes.

Kilby and Noyce discovered that semiconducting material held burned-in semiconductor circuits. Their printed circuits worked like the much larger metal counterparts. Furthermore, many circuits could be printed and tied together with a single piece of silicon.

These collections of circuits integrated on one chip are what we today refer to as microchips. You are reading this thanks to Kilby and Noyce’s invention.

Kilby worked for Texas Instruments. Noyce was one of the Traitorous Eight, the group who left the abusive, managerially incompetent Shockley. He was working at Fairchild Semiconductor, the firm funded by Doriot student Arthur Rock.

Kilby and Noyce never worked together but, at the same time, addressed the same problem. Kilby, tasked with shrinking the size of a semiconductor, thought of creating it from semiconducting material. He used geranium. Noyce realized that silicon worked better and that multiple circuits could be etched on one silicon wafer.

Their Integrated Circuit won the Nobel Prize in 2000 and went on to change the world. Noyce passed away in 1990 so only Kilby was eligible for the prize. Neither claimed sole credit nor disparaged the other.

Consequently, Kilby, a prolific innovator, was rewarded as an employee and led a comfortable life. Meanwhile, Noyce left Fairchild, co-founded Intel, and died a billionaire.