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Photo: Imec
Short Stack: Imec constructed transistors from stacks of horizontal silicon nanowires (cross section of array shown here).
Photo: Imec

Five years ago, Intel introduced today’s high-­performance transistor to the world. Dubbed the ­FinFET, the device takes its name from its appearance: The transistor’s current-carrying channel sticks up vertically in the shape of a fin, and the gate that controls it drapes over the sides. The result is a much tighter control over the flow of current, which in modern microprocessors can fairly easily sneak across the transistor when it’s supposed to be shut off.

But well before the FinFET exploded onto the scene in 2011, engineers and device physicists had already been looking at the possibility of taking that transistor geometry to its logical conclusion, with a gate that completely surrounds the ­current-carrying channel. Shifting to such a “gate-all-around” geometry would, in ­theory, allow chip companies to produce shorter transistors that don’t leak copious amounts of current, improving speed or power consumption in the process.

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The First Million-Transistor Chip: the Engineers’ Story

Intel’s i860 RISC chip was a graphics powerhouse

21 min read
Twenty people crowd into a cubicle, the man in the center seated holding a silicon wafer full of chips

Intel's million-transistor chip development team

In San Francisco on Feb. 27, 1989, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., startled the world of high technology by presenting the first ever 1-million-transistor microprocessor, which was also the company’s first such chip to use a reduced instruction set.

The number of transistors alone marks a huge leap upward: Intel’s previous microprocessor, the 80386, has only 275,000 of them. But this long-deferred move into the booming market in reduced-instruction-set computing (RISC) was more of a shock, in part because it broke with Intel’s tradition of compatibility with earlier processors—and not least because after three well-guarded years in development the chip came as a complete surprise. Now designated the i860, it entered development in 1986 about the same time as the 80486, the yet-to-be-introduced successor to Intel’s highly regarded 80286 and 80386. The two chips have about the same area and use the same 1-micrometer CMOS technology then under development at the company’s systems production and manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Ore. But with the i860, then code-named the N10, the company planned a revolution.

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