In the first computers, CPUs were made of vacuum tubes and electric relays rather than microscopic transistors on computer chips. These early computers were immense and needed a great deal of power compared to today’s microprocessor-driven computers. The first general purpose electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), was introduced in 1946 and filled a large room. About 18,000 vacuum tubes were used to build ENIAC’s CPU and input/output circuits. Between 1946 and 1956 all computers had bulky CPUs that consumed massive amounts of energy and needed continual maintenance, because the vacuum tubes burned out frequently and had to be replaced.


A solution to the problems posed by vacuum tubes came in 1948, when American physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley first demonstrated a revolutionary new electronic switching and amplifying device called the transistor. The transistor had the potential to work faster and more reliably and to consume much less power than a vacuum tube. Despite the overwhelming advantages transistors offered over vacuum tubes, it took nine years before they were used in a commercial computer. The first commercially available computer to use transistors in its circuitry was the UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), delivered to the United States Air Force in 1956.


Development of the computer chip started in 1958 when Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments demonstrated that it was possible to integrate the various components of a CPU onto a single piece of silicon. These computer chips were called integrated circuits (ICs) because they combined multiple electronic circuits on the same chip. Subsequent design and manufacturing advances allowed transistor densities on integrated circuits to increase tremendously. The first ICs had only tens of transistors per chip compared to the millions or even billions of transistors per chip available on today’s CPUs.

In 1967 Fairchild Semiconductor introduced a single integrated circuit that contained all the arithmetic logic functions for an eight-bit processor. (A bit is the smallest unit of information used in computers. Multiples of a bit are used to describe the largest-size piece of data that a CPU can manipulate at one time.) However, a fully working integrated circuit computer required additional circuits to provide register storage, data flow control, and memory and input/output paths. Intel Corporation accomplished this in 1971 when it introduced the Intel 4004 microprocessor. Although the 4004 could only manage four-bit arithmetic, it was powerful enough to become the core of many useful hand calculators at the time. In 1975 Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems introduced the Altair 8800, the first personal computer kit to feature an eight-bit microprocessor. Because microprocessors were so inexpensive and reliable, computing technology rapidly advanced to the point where individuals could afford to buy a small computer. The concept of the personal computer was made possible by the advent of the microprocessor CPU. In 1978 Intel introduced the first of its x86 CPUs, the 8086 16-bit microprocessor. Although 32-bit microprocessors are most common today, microprocessors are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with many 64-bit CPUs available. High-performance processors can run with internal clock rates that exceed 3 GHz, or 3 billion clock pulses per second.


The competitive nature of the computer industry and the use of faster, more cost-effective computing continue the drive toward faster CPUs. The minimum transistor size that can be manufactured using current technology is fast approaching the theoretical limit. In the standard technique for microprocessor design, ultraviolet (short wavelength) light is used to expose a light-sensitive covering on the silicon chip. Various methods are then used to etch the base material along the pattern created by the light. These etchings form the paths that electricity follows in the chip. The theoretical limit for transistor size using this type of manufacturing process is approximately equal to the wavelength of the light used to expose the light-sensitive covering. By using light of shorter wavelength, greater detail can be achieved and smaller transistors can be manufactured, resulting in faster, more powerful CPUs. Printing integrated circuits with X-rays, which have a much shorter wavelength than ultraviolet light, may provide further reductions in transistor size that will translate to improvements in CPU speed.

Many other avenues of research are being pursued in an attempt to make faster CPUs. New base materials for integrated circuits, such as composite layers of gallium arsenide and gallium aluminum arsenide, may contribute to faster chips. Alternatives to the standard transistor-based model of the CPU are also being considered. Experimental ideas in computing may radically change the design of computers and the concept of the CPU in the future. These ideas include quantum computing, in which single atoms hold bits of information; molecular computing, where certain types of problems may be solved using recombinant DNA techniques; and neural networks, which are computer systems with the ability to learn.


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