Image: Computer History Museum
Manufacturer: MOS Technology
When one particular chubby-faced geek stuck one particular chip into one particular computer circuit board and booted it up, the universe skipped a beat. The geek was Steve Wozniak, the computer was the Apple I, and the chip was the 6502, an 8-bit microprocessor developed by MOS Technology. The chip, and its variants went on to become the main brains of ridiculously seminal computers like the Apple II, the Commodore PET, the Commodore 64, and the BBC Micro, not to mention game systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 2600 (also known as the Atari VCS). Chuck Peddle, one of the chip’s creators, recalls when they introduced the 6502 at a trade show in 1975. “We had two glass jars filled with chips,” he says, “and I had my wife sit there selling them.” (In 2016, Peddle admitted that at the time he had only enough working processors for the upper layers of the jars—they were mostly filled with nonworking chips.) Hordes showed up. The reason: The 6502 wasn’t just faster than its competitors—it was also way cheaper, selling for US $25 while Intel’s 8080 and Motorola’s 6800 were both fetching nearly $200.
The breakthrough that permitted this cost reduction, says Bill Mensch, who created the 6502 with Peddle, was a minimal instruction set combined with a fabrication process that “yielded 10 times as many good chips as the competition.” The 6502 almost single-handedly forced the price of processors to drop, helping launch the personal computer revolution. A revised version of the chip is still in production and some manufacturers still use it—in commercial embedded systems—as well as many hobbyists. More interesting perhaps, the 6502 is the electronic brain of Bender, the depraved robot in “Futurama,” as revealed in a 1999 episode.