Chip Hall of Fame: Intersil ICL8038 Waveform Generator

Intersil’s somewhat cranky chip brought complex sound generation to consumer electronics

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A good basic waveform—an electrical voltage varying in time—is the raw material from which much more complex behavior can be constructed. Intersil’s ICL8038 integrated circuit was designed to meet the need for a convenient way to obtain a precise waveform, capable of simultaneously generating sine, square, and sawtooth waveforms with only a few supporting external components.

Initially critics scoffed at the 8038’s limited performance and propensity for behaving erratically. And the chip was indeed a bit temperamental. But engineers soon learned how to use it reliably, and the 8038 became a major hit, eventually selling into the hundreds of millions and finding its way into countless applications—including later versions of the “blue boxes” that phreakers used into the 1980s to beat the phone companies. Intersil discontinued the 8038 in 2002, but hobbyists still seek it today to make things like homemade function generators and modular analog synthesizers.

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