Chip Hall of Fame: Signetics NE555

A humble timer chip that became the Swiss Army knife of countless circuits

2 min read
Photo of Signetics NE555 chip
Hans Camenzind

chipPhoto: Hans Camenzind

NE555

Manufacturer: Signetics

Category: Logic

Year: 1971

It was the summer of 1970, and chip designer Hans Camenzind was working as a consultant to Signetics, a Silicon Valley semiconductor firm. The economy was tanking. He was making less than US $15,000 a year and had a wife and four children at home. He really needed to invent something good.

And so he did. One of the greatest chips of all time, in fact. The 555 was a simple-to-use IC that could function as a timer or an oscillator. Still popular today, the chip was a smash hit, winding up in kitchen appliances, toys, spacecraft, and a few thousand other things.

“And it almost didn’t get made,” recalled Camenzind for IEEE Spectrum a few years before he died in 2012.

The idea for the 555 came to him when he was working on a circuit called a phase-locked loop. With some modifications, the circuit could work as a simple timer: You’d trigger it and it would run for a certain period. Simple as it may sound, there was nothing like that around.

At first, Signetics’ engineering department rejected the idea. The company was already selling components that customers could combine to make timers. That could have been the end of it. But Camenzind insisted. He went to Art Fury, Signetics’ marketing manager. Fury liked it.

Camenzind spent nearly a year testing breadboard prototypes, drawing the circuit components on paper, and cutting sheets of Rubylith masking film. “It was all done by hand, no computer,” he says. His final design had 23 transistors, 16 resistors, and 2 diodes.

Photo: Mark Richards/Computer History Museum

One of the keys to the 555’s success was that designers managed to get the circuit down to requiring just eight pins, which meant a small and compact package as seen in this early version.

When the 555 hit the market in 1971, it was a sensation. In 1975 Signetics was absorbed by Philips Semiconductors, now NXP, which says that many billions have been sold. Engineers still use the 555 to create useful electronic modules as well as less useful things, like “Knight Rider”–style lights for car grilles. And for hard-core 555 fans, you can even build a drop-in “macrocircuit” replica kit, assembled out of discrete transistors.

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A sign outside of a building says Palo Alto Research Center Xerox

An undated exterior view of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is shown in Palo Alto, California.

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In late 1969, C. Peter McColough, chairman of Xerox Corp., told the New York Society of Security Analysts that Xerox was determined to develop “the architecture of information” to solve the problems that had been created by the “knowledge explosion.” Legend has it that McColough then turned to Jack E. Goldman, senior vice president of research and development, and said, “All right, go start a lab that will find out what I just meant.”

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