SAN FRANCISCO — In 1965, a California scientist noted that the number of transistors that could be crammed onto an integrated circuit was doubling about every year.
Gordon Moore, now a scientist emeritus at chip-maker Intel, described a trend and ended up pushing an entire industry to ever-greater heights.
Now 86, Moore says the notion of his law came about when Electronics Magazine asked him to predict what the future would look like in the transistor industry.
At the time, Moore worked for Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View, Calif.
He looked at the chips they were making and saw they had eight transistors on them — but that the new chips coming out had about 16. In Fairchild’s laboratories, scientists were working on 30 and even 60 transistor chips.
Moore took a piece of graph paper and plotted these numbers out. That simple act showed him the capacity of the chips was doubling every year, Moore told an Intel staffer in an interview conducted in January.
Moore co-founded Intel in 1968 with Robert Noyce.
“So I took a wild extrapolation and said we’re going to continue doubling every year and go from about 60 elements at the time to 60,000 in 10 years,” he said.
Today’s most advanced chips have 1.3 billion transistors on them.
The article was published on April 19, 1965.
His prediction became known as “Moore’s Law.” In 1975 he updated it to predict that chip capacity would double every two years.
That number has held relatively steady ever since. Every decade or so someone says the physical limits of increase are upon us, but so far engineers have found ways to keep making chips smaller, faster and more powerful.
Moore was clear that he wasn’t describing a physical constant like the law of gravity but simply observing what was happening in the world of transistors.
Thankfully for computer users everywhere, his extrapolation has taken on the weight of law.
Technology companies began to act as if they had to keep on track with doubling processing ability or they’d be seen as falling behind. Moore ended up setting the pace as much as describing it.
So the next time you pick up your phone to do something even the most far-thinking computer scientists couldn’t conceive of 50 years ago, take a moment to thank Gordon Moore and his simple graph.
As Intel notes, if you tried to build an Android phone today using the chips available in 1971, it would be the size of a parking space.
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