Chip Hall of Fame: Microchip Technology PIC 16C84 Microcontroller

Adding easily reprogrammable onboard memory to store software revolutionized microcontrollers

2 min read
Photo of PIC 16C84 Microcontroller
Image: Microchip Technology

PIC 16C84 Micro-controller

Manufacturer: Microchip Technology

Category: Processors

Year: 1993

Back in the early 1990s, the huge 8-bit microcontroller universe belonged to one company, the almighty Motorola. Then along came a small contender with a nondescript name, Microchip Technology. Microchip developed the PIC 16C84, which took an 8-bit microcontroller and added a type of memory called EEPROM, for electrically erasable programmable read-only memory. EEPROM doesn’t need UV light to be erased, as did its progenitor, EPROM. Such read-only memory is generally used to store program code or small bits of data. Eliminating the need for a UV light meant that “users could change their code on the fly,” says Rod Drake, the chip’s lead designer and now a director at Microchip. Even better, the whole chip cost less than US $5, or a quarter the cost of existing alternatives at the time. The 16C84 was used in smart cards, remote controls, and wireless car keys. It was the beginning of a line of microcontrollers that became electronics superstars among Fortune 500 companies and weekend hobbyists alike. While the 16C84 has been retired, the PIC line is still in production and billions have been sold, used in things like industrial controllers, unmanned aerial vehicles, digital pregnancy tests, chip-controlled fireworks, LED jewelry, and a septic-tank monitor named the Turd Alert.

Diagram US5351216 This sketch from a Microchip patent shows how PIC controllers differed from other computers. In most computers, such as your PC, programs and working data are stored in the same memory—an arrangement known as a “von Neumann architecture.” But PIC controllers keep program and working-data memory separate—an arrangement known as a “Harvard architecture.” This allowed programs to be stored in cheap read-only memory.Image: Microchip Technology/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

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Ted Hoff is part of electronics industry legend. While a research manager at Intel Corp., then based in Mountain View, he realized that silicon technology had advanced to the point that, with careful engineering, a complete central processor could fit on a chip. Teaming up with Stanley Mazor and Federico Faggin, he created the first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004.

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