Chip Hall of Fame: Computer Cowboys Sh-Boom Processor

You’ve never heard of it. But this processor’s high-speed architecture has been duplicated in every modern computer

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Two chip designers walk into a bar. They are Russell H. Fish III and Chuck H. Moore (the creator of the Forth computer language), and the bar is called Sh-Boom. No, this is not the beginning of a joke. It’s actually part of a technology tale filled with discord and lawsuits. Lots of lawsuits. It all started in 1988 when Fish and Moore created a bizarre processor called Sh-Boom. The chip was so streamlined that it could run faster than the clock on the circuit board that drove the rest of the computer. So the two designers found a way to have the processor run its own superfast internal clock while staying synchronized with the rest of the computer. Sh-Boom was never a commercial success, and after patenting its innovative parts, Moore and Fish moved on. Fish later sold his patent rights to a Carlsbad, Calif.–based firm, Patriot Scientific, which remained a profitless speck of a company until its executives had a revelation: In the years since Sh-Boom’s invention, the speed of processors had far surpassed that of motherboards, and so practically every maker of computers and consumer electronics wound up using an approach just like the one Fish and Moore had patented. Ka-ching! Patriot fired a barrage of lawsuits against U.S. and Japanese companies. Whether these companies’ chips depend on the Sh-Boom ideas is a matter of controversy. But since 2006, Patriot and Moore have reaped over US $125 million in licensing fees from Intel, AMD, Sony, Olympus, and others. As for the name Sh-Boom, Moore, now at GreenArrays, in Cupertino, Calif., told IEEE Spectrum: “It supposedly derived from the name of a bar where Fish and I drank bourbon and scribbled on napkins. There’s little truth in that. But I did like the name he suggested.”

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