Unsung Heroes of Tech Back in the late 1970s you wouldnt have guessed that this shy young Cambridge maths student named Wilson would be the seed for what has now become the hottest-selling microprocessor in the world.
via Chris Bidmead: ARM creators Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber • reghardware.
This is an amazing story of how a small computer company in Britain was able to jump into the chip design business and accidentally create a new paradigm in low power chips. Astounding what seemingly small groups can come with as complete product categories unto themselves. The BBC Micro was the single most important project that kept the company going and was produced as a learning aid for the BBC television show: The_Computer_Programme, a part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project. From that humble beginning of making the BBC Micro, Furber and Wilson’s ability to engineer a complete computer was well demonstrated.
But whereas the BBC Micro used an off the shelf MOS 6502 cpu, a later computer used a custom (bespoke) designed chip created in house by Wilson and Furber. This is the vaunted Acorn Risc Machine (ARM) used in the Archimedes desktop computer. And that one chip helped launch a revolution unto itself in that the very first time the powered up a sample chip, the multimeter hooked up to registered no power draw. At first one would think this was a flaw, and ask “What the heck is happening here?” But in fact when further inspection showed that the multimeter was correct, the engineers discovered that the whole cpu was running of power that was leaking from the logic circuits within the chip itself. Yes, the low power requirement of this first sample chip of the ARM cpu in 1985 ran on 1/10 of a watt of electricity. And that ‘bug’ then went on to become a feature in later generations of the ARM architecture.
Today we know of the ARM cpu cores as a bit of licensed Intellectual Property that any chip make can acquire and implement in their mobile processor designs. It has come to dominate many different architectures by different manufacturers as diverse as Qualcomm and Apple Inc. But none of it ever would have happened were it not for that somewhat surprising discovery of how power efficient that first sample chip really was when it was plugged into a development board. So thankyou Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber, as the designers and engineers today are able to stand upon your shoulders the way you once stood on the shoulders of people who designed the MOS 6502.
- Eben’s talk from Beeb@30 – video (raspberrypi.org)
- ARM creators Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber (go.theregister.com)
- Series revisits ARM’s humble beginnings, BBC Micro and all (engadget.com)