Chip Hall of Fame: Xilinx XC2064 FPGA

Hardware that can transform itself on command has proven incredibly useful

1 min read
Xilinx XC2064 FPGA
Photo: Xilinx

Xilinx XC2064 FPGA chipPhoto: Xilinx


Manufacturer: Xilinx

Category: Logic

Year: 1985

Back in the early 1980s, chip designers tried to get the most out of each and every transistor on their circuits. But then Ross Freeman had a pretty radical idea. He came up with a chip packed with transistors that formed loosely organized logic blocks with connections that could be configured and reconfigured with software. As a result, sometimes a bunch of transistors wouldn’t be used—heresy!—but Freeman was betting that Moore’s Law would eventually make transistors so cheap that no one would care. He was right. To market his chip, called a field-programmable gate array, or FPGA, Freeman cofounded Xilinx. (Apparently, a weird concept called for a weird company name.)

When the company’s first product, the XC2064, came out in 1985, employees were given an assignment: They had to draw, by hand, an example circuit using XC2064’s logic blocks, just as Xilinx customers would. Bill Carter, a former chief technology officer, recalls being approached by CEO Bernie Vonderschmitt, who said he was having “a little difficulty doing his homework.” Carter was only too happy to help the boss. “There we were,” he says, “with paper and colored pencils, working on Bernie’s assignment!” Today FPGAs—sold by Xilinx and others—are used in just too many things to list comprehensively here, but they can be found in things such as software-defined radios, neural networks, and data center routers. Go reconfigure!

Image: Xilinx

This diagram shows the repeating structure in schematic form. Configurable blocks are surrounded by a perimeter of support and input/output circuity.

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polaroid sx-70 camera, silver with brown leather, open on white surface
Thomas Backa

In one corner stood the defending champion, Texas Instruments. In the other stood the challenger, Fairchild Semiconductor. The referee, judge, promoter, and only spectator was Polaroid. In contention was the contract for the electronics of Polaroid’s secret project—a pioneering product introduced in 1972 as the SX-70, a camera eventually purchased by millions of people.

As the embodiment of truly automated instant photography, the SX-70 fulfilled a long-held dream of Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, Mass. Vital to this “point and shoot” capability was a new film—one that would develop while exposed to light and so eliminate the tear-away covers of previous Polaroid films. Also vital were sophisticated electronics to control all single lens reflex (SLR) camera functions, including flashbulb selection, exposure control, mirror positioning, start of print development, and ejection of print. These circuits were divided into three modules, one each for motor, exposure and logic, and flash control. At the final count, some 400 transistors were used.

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