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Work on the 8080, the first single-chip microprocessor, began in 1972 largely because of the perseverance of Federico Faggin.
Faggin led Intel’s development of the world’s first microprocessor, the 4-bit 4004 released in 1971, and the first 8-bit processor, the 8008, in 1972. Both devices – released within five months of each other – had been breakthroughs.
Before Faggin finished with the 8008, he was convinced Intel could do better. Both the 4004 and 8008 operated as components in four-chip sets, and their practical applications were limited. Faggin wanted to create a true single-chip microprocessor with speed and usability.
He received the blessing of Intel’s board of directors, and the company’s microprocessor team began designing the 8080 while the 8008 was still approaching full production. The team would draw on the abilities of many of the same people who had helped make the 4004 and 8008, including Faggin, Ted Hoff, Stan Mazor and Masatoshi Shima. (Shima had worked with Intel as Busicom’s representative on the 4004 and was recruited to Intel specifically to work on the 8080).
The new chip was developed swiftly and smoothly: The 8080 went to testing in late 1973 and was introduced publicly in 1974.
The finished processor was revolutionary. With an 8-bit chip capable of 290,000 operations per second, about 10 times that of the 8008, the 8080 would find its way into thousands of devices and make the proliferation of microprocessors a reality instead of just a possibility. One technology historian called the chip “the most important product of the twentieth-century. The 8080, its descendants and its competitors would so profoundly affect the world that human society would look markedly different before and after their introduction.”
Among the most noteworthy devices the 8080 would power was the Altair 8800, the first commercially successful personal computer.
At Intel, the chip contributed to a change in the company’s business operations. In 1974, Intel considered itself primarily a memory company, and, while its two earlier processors had been financially successful, their sales didn’t challenge that focus. The 8080, in contrast, sold so well it earned back the money spent on its research and development in only about five months, and sales continued to rise even as the memory business underwent an industry-wide recession. That success pointed to a new direction for Intel.
“The 8080 really created the microprocessor market,” Faggin said. “The 4004 and 8008 suggested it, but the 8080 made it real.”
That market would be a crucial element of Intel’s business from that point forward.
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.