The story of the first microprocessor, one you may have heard, goes something like this: The Intel 4004 was introduced in late 1971, for use in a calculator. It was a combination of four chips, and it could be programmed to do other things too, like run a cash register or a pinball game. Flexible and inexpensive, the 4004 propelled an entire industry forward; it was the conceptual forefather of the machine upon which you are probably reading this very article.
That's the canonical sketch. But objects, events, people—they have alternate histories. Their stories can often be told a different way, from a different perspective, or a what could have been.
This is the story, then, of how another first microprocessor, a secret one, came to be—and of my own entwinement with it. The device was designed by a team at a company called Garrett AiResearch on a subcontract for Grumman, the aircraft manufacturer. It was larger, it was a combination of six chips, and it performed crucial functions for the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first flight this week. It was called the Central Air Data Computer, and it computed things like altitude and Mach number; it figured out the angle of attack, key to landing and missile targeting; and it controlled the wing sweep, allowing the craft to be both maneuverable when the wings were at about 50 degrees and very, very fast when they were swept all the way back.
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