"A work of intellect and love"
Federico Faggin - the father of the microchip
By the time he appeared on the scene, everything – in a sense – was already too late. In 1970, Intel's developers had fallen behind in the microchip stakes, and catching up seemed almost impossible. One colleague claimed that the development of a microprocessor had been completed, and disappeared on a business trip, although in fact nothing was finished. A Japanese client, seeing that the chip would not work in his pocket calculators, became furious and, abandoning Japanese decorum, noisily accused his business partner of incompetence. That was the starting signal for Federico Faggin, who had only just joined the company. Working 12 to 16 hours a day, he struggled heroically to carry out his mission. He had invented the metal-on-silicon microprocessor some years before when working for Fairchild Semiconductors. But no one had yet managed to fit an entire CPU on a single chip.
Clearly, however, it was only a question of time before someone succeeded in doing just that. So Faggin went for the prize. Inventing, he says today, is "a struggle between the believers in an idea and those who have something to lose by it. You have to believe in the idea passionately enough to carry on. It is a work of intellect and love." Six months later he had found a way of accommodating microcircuits on a chip, and Intel was soon able to produce the first wafers for its 4000 chip family. But the first run was a disappointment: one of the masking layers had been omitted in the wafer processing, and the chip did not work. Faggin's hands were trembling when the next batch arrived. He tested the wafers one by one in the lab until three o'clock in the morning, his excitement mounting as he gradually found that nearly all of them were usable. He remembers exactly how he felt: "I went home in a strange state of exhaustion and excitement. All that work had suddenly paid off in a moment of intense satisfaction."
In March 1971, when the first microprocessor was shipped to Japan and became a commercial reality, Faggin already realised that the new chip had many other potential applications. But it would need to be mass-produced, cheaply and not just for one manufacturer. Others took a different view: the single-chip CPU was not greeted with enthusiasm. "Engineers who designed the early microprocessors fought technical battles and management indifference. Nevertheless, I persuaded Intel's president to market the 4004."
Even the critics now see the microchip as the most important invention of the twentieth century. Without it, there would be no computers, no calculators, no modern cars. Billions of the miniature digital helpers are in circulation. The legendary 4004 and its successor were only the start of the revolution, and the real breakthrough for Intel and the industry as a whole came later, with the next generation of chips developed by Faggin as Intel's head of R&D. But the inventor was not content to rest on his laurels. The physics PhD and electronics expert is a typical engineer – never satisfied with the finished product and always on the lookout for ways of improving it. The logical next step was to set up his own company, Zilog, in 1974, which was totally dedicated to the microprocessor market. Zilog filed 27 patent applications, and its Z80 CPU outperformed the subsequent range of chips from Faggin's previous employer, but also put an end to his career as an engineer. When Zilog set up as a rival to Intel, Faggin moved away from R&D to become an entrepreneur and CEO. He has headed three start-ups, and recently became chairman of the board of his latest venture, Synaptics, a developer of user interface solutions for mobile computing and entertainment devices. His native country has paid tribute to him with honorary doctorates in informatics and electrical engineering from the universities of Milan and Rome – and his pioneering work has earned him a place in the National Inventors' Hall of Fame.
A small chip with a huge impact: without Federico Faggin's contribution to microelectronics, there would be no PCs and no modern cars. The engineer fought tenaciously for his idea.