Rupert Goodwins' Diary 16.11.2001

Thursday 15/11/2001Today's the day the processor turns thirty. I have a great time thrashing around on the Web and elsewhere finding out stuff about the Intel 4004 chip -- the world's first commercially available microprocessor, available on this day in 1971.

Thursday 15/11/2001

Today's the day the processor turns thirty. I have a great time thrashing around on the Web and elsewhere finding out stuff about the Intel 4004 chip -- the world's first commercially available microprocessor, available on this day in 1971. By now, if you've got the slightest interest in the thing you'll be sick of the tales of where it came from, who paid for it, how many transistors it had, and so on.

But the chip has its own myths attached now, some of which are plain wrong. For example, you'll see everywhere that it was on the Pioneer 10 mission to Jupiter. It wasn't -- Pioneer 10 didn't have any sort of computer. The 4004 was the first microprocessor in space, but that was a long time later on the Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument on Pioneer Venus, 1978. On the other hand, Railtrack was using 4004s in railway station displays until quite recently -- the ones with flippy letters -- and there may still be some in service.

But then, that's this bloody country for you. If someone said that Railtrack maintained a Colossus in a cave somewhere, with its glowing valves dedicated to working out new excuses why trains were late, I'd believe it unquestioningly. And can anyone explain to me why the Jubilee Line signalling still doesn't work? How hard is it to signal a few miles of track, after a hundred and fifty years of continuous railway design experience? We walked on the Moon thirty years ago: these days, it seems hard enough to get to Stratford.

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