What Is a Computer Chip?

Phil Shepley
Phil Shepley
Robert Noyce was one of the first developers of the modern computer chip.
Robert Noyce was one of the first developers of the modern computer chip.

A computer chip is a small electronic circuit, also known as an integrated circuit, which is one of the basic components of most kinds of electronic devices, especially computers. Computer chips are small and are made of semiconductors that is usually composed of silicon, on which several tiny components including transistors are embedded and used to transmit electronic data signals. They became popular in the latter half of the 20th century because of their small size, low cost, high performance and ease to produce.

Computer chips are one of the basic components of most electronic devices.
Computer chips are one of the basic components of most electronic devices.

The modern computer chip saw its beginning in the 1950s through two separate researchers who were not working together, but developed similar chips. The first was developed at Texas Instruments by Jack Kilby in 1958, and the second was developed at Fairchild Semiconductor by Robert Noyce in 1958. These first computer chips used relatively few transistors, usually around ten, and were known as small-scale integration chips. As time went on through the century, the amount of transistors that could be attached to the computer chip increased, as did their power, with the development of medium-scale and large-scale integration computer chips. The latter could contain thousands of tiny transistors and led to the first computer microprocessors.

Tiny transistors play a key role in the operation of a computer chip.
Tiny transistors play a key role in the operation of a computer chip.

There are several basic classifications of computer chips, including analog, digital and mixed signal varieties. These different classifications of computer chips determine how they transmit signals and handle power. Their size and efficiency are also dependent upon their classification, and the digital computer chip is the smallest, most efficient, most powerful and most widely used, transmitting data signals as a combination of ones and zeros.

Today, large-scale integration chips can actually contain millions of transistors, which is why computers have become smaller and more powerful than ever. Not only this, but computer chips are used in just about every electronic application including home appliances, cell phones, transportation and just about every aspect of modern living. It has been posited that the invention of the computer chip has been one of the most important events in human history. The future of the computer chip will include smaller, faster and even more powerful integrated circuits capable of doing amazing things, even by today’s standards.

How Does a Computer Chip Work?

Integrated circuits are made possible by two innovations. The first is the invention of the transistor by William B. Schockley in 1947. His team used certain crystals to manipulate electrons and control the flow of electricity. These solid-state components quickly took the place of larger, more expensive vacuum tubes. The second innovation came in the 1950s from Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. They replaced bulky wires with tiny, metal traces directly upon their devices. After that, whole boards of components could be "integrated" onto a tiny piece of material. The invention of the integrated circuit made the technologies of the Information Age possible.

There has been continuous advancement in circuit design. The result is smaller and more efficient microchips. Today, integrated circuits, or ICs, are small pieces of flat silicon that can be as small as a few square millimeters. Individual circuit components are generally microscopic. Different circuit elements are thin substrates of semiconductors arranged in permanent patterns. Different arrangements result in various miniaturized devices like transistors, gates, diodes, capacitors, and resistors. The assembly of tiny switches is engineered to process input signals into predictable outputs.

Moore's Law

Integrated circuits mean that electronics keep getting smaller. Within a decade of the invention of transistors, engineers called putting dozens of components on chips Small-Scale Integration (SSI). Medium-Scale Integrations (MSI) soon followed adding even more per square centimeter. Today, we have Ultra Large Scale Integration (ULSI) with millions of elements on a single tiny wafer. The number of components on a chip has doubled every year. This phenomenon is named after Gordon Moore, an Intel engineer that first noticed the trend back in the 1960s.

What are the Types of Integrated Circuits?

There are two primary types of IC: digital ICs and analog ICs.

Analog Integrated Circuits

In this type, the input and output are continual, varying signals operating over a continuous range. The output signal level is a linear function of the input level. The voltages are directly proportional to each other. That is why this type is also called "linear ICs." Linear ICs are used most often for frequency amplification. Well-known examples of this type of IC are voltage regulators, timers, comparators, and operational amplifiers. Op-amps are the most common and include resistors, diodes, and transistors. Linear ICs are crucial in audio amplifiers, sweep generators, audio filters, and oscillators.

Digital Integrated Circuits

A digital IC has a finite number of discrete input and output states. Digital circuits are also called "non-linear ICs" because they work on discontinuous, binary signals. The input and output voltages of non-linear ICs have two possible values. These values, the "high" or "low" voltage, will result in different gated outputs. These circuits work as logical operators to calculate Boolean functions. This type of IC is used for digital logic gates such as the AND gate, OR gate, NAND gate, XOR gate, flip flips, and counters. These ICs are used to control the flow of processes in systems. They are crucial for programmable devices, memory chips, and logic boards such as microprocessors and microcontrollers.

Mixed-Signal Integrated Circuits

These hybrid designs are engineered by combining elements of analog and digital ICs. In real-life applications, mixed ICs are everywhere. These ICs make it possible to have chips that act as A/D (analog-to-digital) converters, D/A (digital-to-analog) converters, and clock timing circuits. Modern computing is based upon these circuits.

What are the Classes of Integrated Circuits?

There are different types of integrated circuits based upon the techniques used while manufacturing and assembling them.

Monolithic ICs

Monolithic integrated circuits are fabricated entirely upon a single chip. It has the full circuit constructed on a single piece of semiconductor, enclosed in a chassis, and then given connecting leads. It is small in size compared to hybrids. All the components are formed together by a method such as diffusion or ion implantation. These chips are typically more expensive, operated at high speeds, and provide little flexibility in circuit design.

Hybrid/Multichip ICs

Hybrid integrated circuits are made by interconnecting several individual chips. The chip is often a ceramic substrate with one or more silicon chips attached. It may also use other semiconductors, such as gallium arsenide chips. These chips are larger compared to monolithic ICs. The elements of the hybrid circuit are typically connected by TEM mode transmission lines. These chips tend to be less expensive, slower due to their connections, and result in greater flexibility in circuit design.

Discussion Comments

anon942863

Who do I talk to to get a computer chip programmed for me to run in a machine I’m making ?

anon325859

Why do computer chips have to go in computers, if they already work without them?

anon306680

What is the name of a chip that processes data in the serial form a computer can accept, making keyboards possible?

anon197012

There are images online of some old computers and computer chips from the 1960s, 70s and 80s: IBM, Intel, RCA, AMD, Hughes, Ma Bell, Samsung, Cray, Burroughs, Univac, MIT and many more semiconductor makers, from vacuum tubes to advanced integrated circuits.

anon110914

Well, say what you will concerning Binary. I had to program my assembly program to run my robot in 94 to graduate for my A.S. in electronics and it is still being taught! Ask Spock!

mcsquared

@anon79262 - Binary is absolutely a computer language, even though it is not one that people often program in. Programming languages like C++ and Java are translated into a binary file when they are compiled. Basically, they go from a language that programmers can understand to a language that computers can understand.

It is still possible to write a program entirely to binary-- it would just be incredibly difficult and time-consuming. Binary represents the lowest level (meaning, closest to the hardware level) computer language whereas the programming languages we are typically familiar with represent higher level languages.

anon79262

Fair article but does not describe that ones and zeros are not computer language. Space and time would deserve a more thorough inspection.

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