1972: The year everything changed
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“The Godfather” was playing in theaters everywhere, and “American Pie” was on FM. China was completely isolated from the West and no one could imagine having a phone in their pocket.
It was 1972, the year everything changed.
Hindsight being what it is, a series of seemingly unrelated events that year paved the way for the electronics industry we know today. US President Richard Nixon visited China that year. Atari released the very first video game, “Pong”. Intel introduced the 8008 processor, and the first epic rivalry for computer market dominance was just beginning.
“I think the early ’70s were pivotal for the electronics industry,” said Michael Knight, president of the Exponential Technology Group of TTI Inc., senior vice president of business development and high-tech history buff. technology. “Gaming was the next killer application. Television and radio were the first killer applications to drive electronics, but back then computing was a brute-force time-sharing system. The early 1990s 70 paved the way for modern electronics.You had Intel’s first truly programmable microprocessor.
The high-tech battleground at that time was portable calculators, and the fighters were HP and Texas Instruments. As the story goes, HP co-founder Bill Hewlett challenged his engineers in 1971: fit all the functionality of their desktop scientific calculator into a package small enough for his shirt pocket. They did it. The HP-35 could not only add, subtract, multiply and divide, but also calculate trigonometric functions, logarithms and exponents. It sold for $395.
The following year, Texas Instruments responded with the SR-10. TI’s calculator didn’t give values for trigonometric functions, but it only cost $150.
Semiconductor technology allowed for smaller and faster devices. Intel’s 8008 was the world’s first 8-bit programmable microprocessor and only the chipmaker’s second microprocessor. It featured 50% more transistors and 8 times the clock speed of its predecessor, the 4004, and it was capable of handling data/characters. Semiconductor historians credit the 8008 with cementing the future of microprocessor development and production as a commercial avenue, which paved the way for the modern computing age.
In 1985, the Sharp EL-345 solar calculator sold for $5.95.
This release illustrated another technological battle in full swing: Japan’s rise as an electronic powerhouse. Portable calculators were introduced in the United States by the Japanese companies Busicom (Nippon Calculating Machine Corp.) and Sharp (Hayakawa Electric). The chips for the first Busicom calculators were manufactured in the United States by Mostek and Intel, while Texas Instruments supplied integrated circuits to American competitor Bowmar.
Japanese companies and the Japanese government, through its Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), have been steadily investing in the country’s technology and manufacturing capabilities since the 1960s. Japan was already the leader consumer electronics prices, but until the early 1970s the quality was rather poor. Japan’s automotive industry – another focus of the country – had adopted leading practices such as lean manufacturing, which minimized inventory investment, and total quality management. Automakers had also begun to use external suppliers, while the US industry was still largely vertically integrated. These disciplines were easily transferable to electronics.
Japan had built its advantage in electronics by importing technologies from other countries and then innovating more than its competitors. The Sony Walkman, VCR and digital watches were all Japanese inventions.
Two decades later, China would emerge as the low-cost option for electronics and manufacturing services.
By 1972, Texas Instruments was accustomed to being the best in the chip business. Jack Kilby of TI is credited with inventing the integrated circuit – as were Jean Hoerni and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor – in the late 1950s. Kilby is generally credited with developing the concept of device element integration and circuitry on a single silicon chip, while Noyce is credited with devising the method of integrating the separate elements.
Intel’s 8008 had been developed on a separate path from the 4004, and the higher transistor count, higher performance, and data/character manipulation capabilities of the new MPU gave it wider market appeal. Developed for Busicom, the 4004 had 2,250 transistors and could perform up to 90,000 operations per second in 4-bit chunks, but it could only handle arithmetic.
The 8008 was a precursor to the x86 architecture, TTI’s Knight noted. “All these years later, x86 is not a dead technology. Like MOSFETs, [the 8008 was] fundamental technology.
Large-scale integration was also introduced in 1972. LSI enabled huge reductions in component cost, size, weight, and power consumption, as well as increased speed and reliability. These characteristics stemmed from the physical structure of the chip; more doors could be added without enlarging it.
The personalization of computing had begun.
The first PC was still years away, but gaming was driving electronics innovation. Magnavox introduced the first game console, the Odyssey, in May 1972. The Odyssey had a number of removable circuit boards that switched between built-in games. A few years later, with the Odyssey 2, each game could be customized, with its own background and foreground graphics, gameplay, scores, and music. Players could purchase a library of video games tailored to their interests.
The Odyssey 2 included a full alphanumeric membrane keypad, intended for educational games, option selection, or programming.
“The game led to a bunch of innovation,” Knight said. “It allowed people to focus on on-board memory – the 8008 had programmable memory – which was important for gaming. There was an increase in gaming. Somewhere along the line, the gaming industry game made a mistake: it focused more on software. Then there was this renaissance, thanks to Nintendo, and gaming again became the engine of chip technology. It gave birth to Nvidia and the GPU , which is now essential for autonomous driving.
In the mid-1970s, the first consoles based on ROM cartridges arrived, including the Atari Video Computer System (VCS). Coupled with the rapid growth of arcade video games, notably “Space Invaders” and “Pac-Man”, the home console market flourished.
The rise of China
Nixon’s arrival in Beijing in 1972 ended 25 years of no communication or diplomatic relations between China and the United States and was the key step in normalizing relations between the United States and the PRC.
“There’s a lot of correlation between what happened in Japan and what’s happening in China,” Knight said. “Japan decided to go upstream in electronics, and the government supported it and was very deliberate about the enabling technology. This coat was passed on to China, which is making the same trip. From the government’s point of view, China has gone from being a second source to truly innovating with its own brands.
“Nixon goes to China, which laid the groundwork for his entry into the World Trade Organization [WTO]followed by electronics outsourcing, has enabled China to begin to take advantage of this [U.S. tech companies] taught them,” he added. “It was a brilliant decision on Nixon’s part; he saw bringing China into the first world was the best way to defeat Communism. Where we are today, in terms of competitiveness with China, started with that decision.