Intel’s first product was not a processor, but a memory chip: the 31011 RAM chip, released in April 1969. This chip held just 64 bits of data (equivalent to 8 letters or 16 digits) and had the steep price tag of $99.50.2 The chip’s capacity was way too small to replace core memory, the dominant storage technology at the time, which stored bits in tiny magnetized ferrite cores. However, the 3101 performed at high speed due to its special Schottky transistors, making it useful in minicomputers where CPU registers required fast storage. The overthrow of core memory would require a different technology—MOS DRAM chips—and the 3101 remained in use in the 1980s.3
This article looks inside the 3101 chip and explains how it works. I received two 3101 chips from Evan Wasserman and used a microscope to take photos of the tiny silicon die inside.4 Around the outside of the die, sixteen black bond wires connect pads on the die to the chip’s external pins. The die itself consists of silicon circuitry connected by a metal layer on top, which appears golden in the photo. The thick metal lines through the middle of the chip power the chip.
Ken Shirriff has written an article on reverse engineering the 76477 “Space Invaders” sound effect chip:
Remember the old video game Space Invaders? Some of its sound effects were provided by a chip called the 76477 Complex Sound Generation chip. While the sound effects1 produced by this 1978 chip seem primitive today, it was used in many video games, pinball games. But what’s inside this chip and how does it work internally? By reverse-engineering the chip from die photos, we can find out. (Photos courtesy of Sean Riddle.) In this article, I explain how the analog circuits of this chip works and show how the hundreds of transistors on the silicon die form the circuits of this complex chip.
The 74181 ALU (arithmetic/logic unit) chip powered many of the minicomputers of the 1970s: it provided fast 4-bit arithmetic and logic functions, and could be combined to handle larger words, making it a key part of many CPUs. But if you look at the chip more closely, there are a few mysteries. It implements addition, subtraction, and the Boolean functions you’d expect, but why does it provide several bizarre functions such as “A plus (A and not B)”? And if you look at the circuit diagram (below), why does it look like a random pile of gates rather than being built from standard full adder circuits. In this article, I explain that the 74181’s set of functions isn’t arbitrary but has a logical explanation. And I show how the 74181 implements carry lookahead for high speed, resulting in its complex gate structure.
The revolutionary Intel 8008 microprocessor is 45 years old today (March 13, 2017), so I figured it’s time for a blog post on reverse-engineering its internal circuits. One of the interesting things about old computers is how they implemented things in unexpected ways, and the 8008 is no exception. Compared to modern architectures, one unusual feature of the 8008 is it had an on-chip stack for subroutine calls, rather than storing the stack in RAM. And instead of using normal binary counters for the stack, the 8008 saved a few gates by using shift-register counters that generated pseudo-random values. In this article, I reverse-engineer these circuits from die photos and explain how they work.
Ken Shirriff has written an article on reverse engineering the ALU of the 8008 microprocessor:
A computer’s arithmetic-logic unit (ALU) is the heart of the processor, performing arithmetic and logic operations on data. If you’ve studied digital logic, you’ve probably learned how to combine simple binary adder circuits to build an ALU. However, the 8008’s ALU uses clever logic circuits that can perform multiple operations efficiently. And unlike most 1970’s microprocessors, the 8008 uses a complex carry-lookahead circuit to increase its performance.
The 8008 was Intel’s first 8-bit microprocessor, introduced 45 years ago.1 While primitive by today’s standards, the 8008 is historically important because it essentially started the microprocessor revolution and is the ancestor of the x86 processor family that are probably using right now.2 I recently took some die photos of the 8008, which I described earlier. In this article, I reverse-engineer the 8008’s ALU circuits from these die photos and explain how the ALU functions.
What’s inside a TTL chip? To find out, I opened up a 74181 ALU chip, took high-resolution die photos, and reverse-engineered the chip.1 Inside I found several types of gates, implemented with interesting circuitry and unusual transistors. The 74181 was a popular chip in the 1970s used to perform calculations in the arithmetic-logic unit (ALU) of minicomputers. It is a moderately complex chip containing about 67 gates and 170 transistors3, implemented using fast and popular TTL (transistor-transistor logic) circuitry.
I recently watched a cross-country running race that used a digital timing system, so I investigated how the RFID timing chip works. Each runner wears a race bib like the one below. The bib has two RFID tags, consisting of a metal foil antenna connected to a tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip. At the finish line, runners pass over a pad that reads the chip and records the finish time. (I’m not sure why there are two RFID tags on each bib; perhaps for reliability of detection.)
The die photo below shows the RFID chip used on these tags. To create it, I took 22 photos of the chip with my metallurgical microscope and stitched them together to create a high resolution photo. (Click the image for a larger version.) To prepare the chip, I removed it from the plastic carrier with Goof Off, dissolved the antenna with pool acid (HCl), and burnt off the mounting adhesive over a stove. This process left the chip visible with just a bit of debris that wouldn’t come off. I’d probably get better results with boiling sulfuric acid, but that’s too hazardous for me. I described the image stitching process in this article.
Andy Brown wrote an article on reverse engineering a CPU voltage regulator:
A recent ebay fishing expedition yielded an interesting little part for the very reasonable sum of about five pounds. It’s a voltage regulator module from a Dell PowerEdge 6650 Xeon server.
I originally bought this because I had the idea of salvaging parts from it to use in another project. These are high quality modules that will have very good inductors and sometimes an array of high value ceramic capacitors that could be re-used (ceramics of at least 22µF at 16V and above are rather pricey at the moment). So the VRM arrived and I was rather impressed with the build quality and decided to have a go at reverse engineering it.
It’s such an amazingly old looking die
Even with 400x magnification it would not be too hard to reverse engineer back to a schematic! This must be a very old design indeed. When one thinks of high-tech it’s always the new-new thing… however some designs can be very old indeed and still be in production.