The rise of the mini

Tuesday, 30 October, 2012

The news is full of #Sandy and our thoughts are with those bearing the brunt of her wrath. It’s of little consolation to say that thanks to our new technologies more people than ever can be informed about the course of natural disasters, but they are connecting communities as never before and tools like Twitter are becoming essential services for aid agencies and falsehood fighters.

Lost in yesterday’s flood of images and headlines about the storm was the important news that IBM scientists reported major progress in a chip making technology that is likely to ensure the shrinking of the size of the digital switch at the heart of modern microchips. “For the first time, more than ten thousand working transistors made of nano-sized tubes of carbon have been precisely placed and tested in a single chip using standard semiconductor processes,” IBM proudly noted. Have no doubt, this is a significant breakthrough.

DEC Backgrounder: Chip makers have routinely doubled the number of transistors that can be etched on the surface of silicon wafers by shrinking the size of the tiny switches that store and route the ones and zeroes that are processed by computers. The process is known as “Moore’s Law“, named after Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, who in 1965 noted that his industry was doubling the number of transistors it could build on a single chip at routine intervals of 12 to 18 months.

Coincidentally, 1965 was the year that Digital Equipment Corporation introduced the world’s first commercially successful minicomputer, the PDP-8. Yes, it was the size of a refrigerator and at $18,000 not everyone could afford one, but it put an end to the white-coated priesthood of the mainframe typified by… IBM. Behind the mini breakthrough was the transistor, which went into mass production in 1955. By the early 1960s, techniques for fabricating hundreds of transistors on a single semiconductor “chip” had been perfected and the integrated circuit was born. As a result new companies such as Wang, Digital Equipment Corporation and Data General sprung up and old names like RCA, Westinghouse and Raytheon left the computing business entirely. But IBM was still there and it would emerge from the mini era fortified by the developments that made a commodity out of the heart of the computer: the central processing unit.

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