Monday, January 29, 2007

Incredible shrinking technology

In 1965, Gordon Moore, cofounder of chipmaker Intel, predicted that the number of transistors that can be fabricated on a chip at minimum cost would double every 24 months. Last week, Intel announced a chip with transistors 45 nanometers wide -- and so 40 years later Moore's Law remains intact.

Forty-five nanometers! A working electronic device 10,000 times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. And getting cheaper all the time.

I once visited a guy in a suburb of Boston who collected radios. He had them all. A huge Stromberg-Carlson with a dozen electronic tubes the size Coke bottles, glowing like bonfires. Zeniths as large as breadboxes (remember breadboxes?) with salt-shaker-sized tubes. From the 1950s, little Sears Silvertones like the one I got on my 14th birthday, with minitubes no bigger than my little finger. Then, along came transistors, and radios shrank to the size of a deck of cards. This guy had em' all -- a big double garage full of shrinking electronics.

Integrated circuits appeared in the 60s, and if it weren't for the necessity of dials and speakers radios could have become the size of this letter o. But forget radios, it was the dawn of the Age of Computers.

Centimeters. Millimeters. Micrometers. Nanometers.

Will nano be the ultimate in miniaturization? At some point we'll run up against the size of atoms themselves. But what's to keep chipmakers from moving into three dimensions? We'll see how long Moore's Law continues to hold.

By the way, on January 28, yesterday, as I was writing this, I went to Wikipedia to check on the date of Moore's prediction. The article on Moore's Law already included the January 27 announcement by Intel of the 45-nanometer chip. How's that for an up-to-date encyclopedia. Eat your heart out, Britannica!