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Hoff, Ted

Ted Hoff

American engineer Ted Hoff (born 1937) is credited with changing the face of the world as one of the key people behind the creation of the first microprocessor. While working for Intel in 1969, he developed the architecture that made a single-chip Central Processing Unit (CPU) possible. That product came on the market as the Intel 4004 in 1971 and the microprocessor industry was born. Exaggerating the impact of Hoff's invention is nearly impossible, as it became integral to a staggering array of modern conveniences and necessities that included CD players, personal computers, and medical devices.

Science Was His Game

Hoff was born Marcian Edward Hoff, Jr. on October 28, 1937, in Rochester, New York. His father, who worked in railway signaling and his uncle, a chemical engineer, were big influences on him as a boy, and encouraged his early interest in science. Chemistry was his first love, but that affection waned after Hoff was told there was no practical career to be had in research. His uncle's gift of a subscription to Popular Mechanics, however, soon filled the void with electronics. By the time Hoff was 12 years old, he was ordering books on electronics from the magazine, and a Christmas present of a radio-building kit from his parents soon sealed the deal. Electronics would be Hoff's future.

The aspiring young scientist tasted his initial success at only 15, when he was awarded a $400 scholarship and a trip to Washington, D.C., from the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He continued that winning streak after graduating from high school in 1954 and starting to work as a laboratory technician for his father's company, the General Railway Signal Company, during summer breaks from college. While still a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, he designed two circuits, one that detected trains via audio frequencies and one that absorbed energy to protect against lightning, for General Railway. Those innovations led to an inaugural pair of patents for the nascent inventor (a group that would eventually number 17).

Hoff received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer in 1958 and then headed to the West Coast to complete his graduate work. As a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, he earned an MS (1959) and Ph.D. (1962) in electrical engineering. Hoff stayed on at Stanford for six years as a research associate in adaptive systems, until a start-up company named Intel began pursuing him, and soon after, the world would change forever.

Hired at Intel

In 1968, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andrew Grove founded the Intel Development Corporation (Intel was shorthand for integrated electronics). Noyce, who served as the start-up's president, had helped invent the integrated circuit. The new company had been established with the idea of developing semiconductor memory, but Hoff was not aware of that as he was sitting in Noyce's living room being interviewed for his first real job. “When I interviewed with Bob Noyce(,) he asked me what I thought would be the next big thing for semiconductors,” Hoff recalled for a 2006 Stanford School of Engineering Alumni Profile. “I said memory—a lucky guess because that was before I knew why Intel was being founded.” His good instincts paid off by landing him the position of manager of applications research in September of 1968. He was Intel's 12th employee.

Although Intel's early mandate was memory, it was decided that it would be a sensible idea to take on some custom work to make money while the memory business was being built up. An opportunity presented itself when a Japanese calculator company contacted Intel about developing chips for a line of calculators. A deal was struck in April of 1969, and Hoff was assigned to act as liaison for the Japanese engineering team. He had no design responsibilities on the project. Instead, his role was to facilitate and streamline interactions between the Japanese engineers and the applicable Intel counterparts. His natural curiosity and fiscal consciousness, however, prompted Hoff to become more deeply involved. In this, history was soon in the making.

Birth of the Microprocessor

It is important to note that the computers of the 1960s were quite different animals from those of later years. They were huge, for instance, often requiring acre-sized rooms. Circuit chips were needed for each application a computer performed, as opposed to a single chip, or “brain,” that could run programs. Personal computers did not exist, and few imagined that consumers would ever have a desire for one. The London Sunday Times' Simon Sebag Montefiore cited Hoff's quoting the chairman of Digital, Ken Olson's, decidedly less than prescient remarks on the subject as, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Even scientists were often suspicious or intimidated by the machines. Thus, given such an atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that Hoff's proposal to give Intel's Japanese customers what was, in essence, a computer chip rather than a calculator chip was initially not met with delight.

Hoff's inspiration mainly stemmed from simple economic considerations. The Japanese design required about a dozen different chips to get the calculators up and running. Hoff became concerned about Intel's ability to meet its cost targets while implementing such a complicated project. As he contemplated the problem and sought a way to simplify matters, his inventor's intuition and years of technical training took over. Surely it would be better to combine functions, thereby reducing the necessary number of chips. The clients were not impressed with Hoff's idea, but Noyce encouraged him to proceed anyway, believing that having a back-up design would be prudent.

So, Hoff continued his efforts over the summer of 1969. Simply put, he was designing a chip that would act as a CPU, which could run programs on its own. It would be, in effect, a computer on a sliver of silicon. Chip designer Stan Mazor joined Intel in September, and the two began to move beyond overall architecture into specific chip design. And this time, when the skeptical clients reviewed the proposal in October, they gave the single-chip concept the green light. The chip was dubbed the 4004 in honor of the approximate number of transistors it would replace.

A design, however groundbreaking, did not equal an end-product though. Thus, another talented chip designer, Federico Faggin, was brought in to oversee implementation. He arrived at Intel in April of 1970 and brought his own expertise to bear on the project. In February of the following year, working kits were delivered to the clients and in November of that year, the Intel 4004 made its debut on the market. The era of the microprocessor had begun.

The ramifications of the microprocessor were immense and far-reaching. Many, including the advent of the personal computer, could not have been foreseen by Hoff and his colleagues back in 1971. Jerry Sanders, Chief Executive Officer of Advanced Micro Devices, succinctly characterized the chip's impact when he presented Hoff, Faggin, and Mazor with the Semiconductor Industry Association's highest honor for leadership, the Robert N. Noyce Award, in 2000. Business Wire quoted his words as, “One of the most important developments of the last half of the 20th century has been the microprocessor. Semiconductors are found in virtually every automobile, medical device, and computer in the modern world. Who knows where we would be today without the vision, passion(,) and unyielding tenacity of these three men?” Indeed, overestimating the Hoff team's effect on the world is nearly impossible to do.

Accolades and Later Career

Following up his opening career act could hardly have been an easy matter, but Hoff was not one to rest on his laurels. He was, for example, involved with the second and third generations of the 4004, the 8008 and 8080, respectively, as were Mazor and Faggin. In 1975, he turned his considerable abilities toward the telephone industry, at the behest of Noyce. He led a team that explored possible applications of semiconductor technology on telephones. The result, according to Hoff's biographical sketch found on the Computer History Museum Web site, was the production of “the first commercially available monolithic telephone CODEC (for coder/decoder), a device which converts voice signals between analog and digital representations, and the first commercially available switchedcapacitor filter for use with the CODEC.”

In 1980, Hoff was named the first Intel Fellow, the highest technical position within the company. But his tenure with the one-time start-up was nearing an end. After he declined to move to Arizona with Intel's telephone group, he was contacted by a recruiter for Atari. Intrigued by what he perceived as that company's advanced ideas, Hoff signed on as vice president of corporate technology early in 1983. It was not a long-lived association however, as financial troubles forced Atari's sale in 1984. Hoff then became a private consultant. In 1986, a former colleague of Hoff's from Atari founded a company called Teklicon to engage in intellectual property litigation consulting. Hoff began using the outfit as an agent for his own consulting business until joining Teklicon's ranks as chief technologist in 1990. There may have appeared to be a large disparity between engineering and consulting, but Hoff had come to recognize the merits of having a business, as well as a creative, sense. The Stanford School of Engineering's Alumni Profile quoted some of his thoughts on the subject. “So(,) now I look back and wish I had appreciated business more than I did … Even though science and technology are wonderful, what really gets them out there for people to use is to have businesses built around them. It takes savvy businessmen as well as savvy technologists to make that work.”

Whatever success Hoff enjoyed as a businessperson and consultant later in his career, it was his technological achievements for which he will be best remembered. In addition to being listed as inventor or co-inventor on 17 U.S. patents, he received myriad honors for his pioneering work. Those included the 1979 Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute, the 1980 Cledo Brunetti Award and the 1984 Centennial Medal (both from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1996, and, as previously noted, the Robert N. Noyce Award of Semiconductor Industry Association in 2000. His contributions were delineated in Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine's book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, published in 1984 and revised in 2000, and in a DVD called the Microprocessor Chronicles in 2006. Justly so, there was no shortage of praise for or interest in the man who had been integral in altering the face of the modern world. The promise of Hoff's youth had been fulfilled in a manner that few could equal, but to which many could aspire.

Periodicals

Business Wire, November 2, 2000.

Investor's Business Daily, November 5, 2001.

San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 1996.

Sunday Times (London, England), November 3, 1996.

Online

“Fascinating Facts About Ted Hoff Inventor of the Microprocessor in 1968,” Idea Finder, http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/hoff.htm (November 29, 2007).

Freiberger, Paul and Swaine, Michael, “Development of the Microprocessor,” Fire in the Valley, http://www.fireinthevalley.com/fitv_book1.html (November 29, 2007).

Freiberger, Paul and Swaine, Michael, “The Making of the Personal Computer,” Fire in the Valley, http://www.fireinthevalley.com/fitv_press.html (November 29, 2007).

“Marcian E. (Ted) Hoff,” Inventor of the Week, http://Website.mit.edu/invent/iow/hoff.html (November 29, 2007).

“Marcian E. (Ted) Hoff,” National Inventors Hall of Fame, http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/79.html (November 29, 2007).

“Marcian (Ted) Hoff: Teenage Prodigy, Still Going Strong,” Electronic Design, http://electronicdesign.com/Articles/Index.cfm?AD=1&ArticleID=2854 (November 29, 2007).

“Ted Hoff,” Computer History Museum, http://www.computerhistory.org/events/index.php?spkid=1&ssid=1162597290 (November 29, 2007).

“Ted Hoff: The Birth of the Microprocessor and Beyond,” Stanford School of Engineering Alumni Profile, http://soe.stanford.edu/alumni/profile_hoff.html (November 29, 2007).]

World of Invention. Online. Thomson Gale, 2006, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 15, 2008).

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