It took Intel three years to design its first microprocessor in 1971 and with its x86 architecture it has produced the world’s most commercially successful microprocessors. It developed other technologies including flash memory, SRAM and DRAM. But it has yet to make the same impact on wireless chip technologies.
Motorola (now Freescale) Semiconductor came into being in the 1950s and by the 1980s its 68000 microprocessors were competing with x86 processors in the personal computer market, being designed into Apple Macs. In 1991 it designed the PowerPC processor in collaboration with Apple and IBM. The chip business left Motorola and became Freescale in 2003.
The ARM microprocessor, or the Acorn RISC Machine, originated in 1983 as intellectual property (IP) owned by Cambridge computer firm Acorn, but licensed and made by other chip companies. Designed as a low power, low latency reduced instruction set (RISC) processor, ARM1 was made by VLSI Technology in 1985. ARM is now the most commonly used processor in mobile phones with billions of chips shipped by licensees each year.
The second British designed microprocessor of the 1980s, the transputer, was not as successful as the ARM despite its ground-breaking parallel processing architecture. The first devices, T212 and T414, where produced by Inmos in 1985. It proved to be an idea ahead of its time and struggled to win design-ins. Design work stopped and Inmos was sold to SGS-Thomson (now STMicroelectronics) in 1989.
In the 1980s IBM was the largest producer and purchaser of semiconductors in the world. Before 1992 all its chips were for its own use. The first processor it sold on the market was the PowerPC designed with Motorola and Apple. It repeated the collaborative approach in 2005 with Cell, one of the first highly parallel processors, designed with Toshiba and Sony for the games consoles market.
National Semiconductor was founded in 1959 and in the 1960s, under the guidance of Charlie Sporck, became one of the leading suppliers of analogue chips. Over the years it has diversified in to memory and logic, but its strength remains its analogue capability. It flirted with processors when it bought Cyrix in 1997, but sold this on to VIA Technologies of Taiwan two years later.
Having invented the silicon transistor in 1954, Texas Instruments was the birthplace of the Jack Kilby’s first integrated circuit in 1958. What followed where years as the world’s largest chip company, supplying everything from memory and logic, such as the low power Schottky 74-series, to microcontrollers and digital signal processors, as well as its analogue ICs.
Analog Devices was founded in 1965 by two MIT-graduates to commercial new designs of amplifiers. Its first product was model 101 op amp. It was the first company to laser trim wafers and the first CMOS digital-to-analogue converter was launched in 1973. ADI has also grown to be a leading supplier of DSPs over the last 25 years.
Linear Technology was founded in 1981 by Robert Swanson and Bob Dobkin, who is credited with having invented the adjustable low-dropout voltage regulator when he was a designer at National Semiconductor in 1977. In 2006 Linear Technology decided to de-emphasise its involvement in the mobile phone and consumer IC markets. By 2008 it had re-focused its business on higher performance industrial, automotive and military/aerospace ICs.
Toshiba was an early mover in the commercialisation CMOS and by the mid-80s had the finest CMOS process in the world. In the late ‘80s, Toshiba got a 1Mbit CMOS DRAM into volume production a full six months before anyone else. Flash memory (both NOR and NAND types) was invented by an engineer working for Toshiba in 1980.
TDK Lambda became part of TDK of Japan in 2005. The UK-based power supply manufacturer was established in 1959 as Coutant Electronics and remains the UK’s largest indigenous manufacturer of both standard and configurable AC-DC and DC-DC power supplies.
Ericsson Power Modules operates as a separate division of the Swedish telecommunications giant. It was one of the first companies to switch to lead-free design in its power modules. Its products include DC-DC converters, point of load voltage regulators and power management devices.
Vicor was founded in 1981 as a US-based manufacturer of power conversion components and systems. It developed its own proprietary power architecture which it also licenses to other companies. It introduced its first “brick” format DC-DC converter in 1982. More recently it has set up a division called Picor selling power ICs.
International Rectifier was founded in Los Angeles in August 1947 to manufacture Selenium rectifiers. It is notable for being one of the first companies to commercialise Germanium rectifiers in 1954. A key product was the hexagonal-celled power mosfet, called HEXFET, which was introduced in 1979.
Bristol-based Marine Current Turbines has been researching and installing tidal turbines since 1994. In May 2008 it installed SeaGen, a 1.2MW prototype which is still the world’s most powerful tidal turbine. Its twin 16m diameter rotors achieve almost 50% efficiency and can deliver 10MWh per tide. SeaGen will form the basis of MCTs commercial designs.
Passives & Electromechanical firms
Kyoto Ceramic Co (now Kyocera) was founded in 1959 in Japan. Over the next 50 years it applied its ceramics technology in products ranging from passive components to semiconductors. In 1990 AVX became part of the group.
In the 1950s Murata commercialised AM radio ceramic filters for use in the first transistor radios. First chip monolithic ceramic capacitors became mainstream as surface mounted devices in the 1980s. More recently Murata has developed its own wireless modules.
Vishay Intertechnology started in 1962 with two product lines: foil resistors and foil resistance strain gauges. From the 1980s the company expanded into semiconductors with a series of acquisitions including Siliconix, Telefunken, Dale, Sprague, Vitramon, and BCcomponents (former passive components business of Philips Electronics).
Omron developed its first non-contact (solid state) switch in 1960. As well as relays the company manufactures a range of products from displays and opto devices to control systems. In 1971 it developed the first online automated cash dispenser.
Tyco Electronics is a $10.3bn US-based electronics group and its business was defined by the acquisition in 1999 of connector manufacturer AMP and materials company Raychem. More acquisitions followed expanding its business into relays, fibre optics, circuit protection and touchscreens.
Agilent Technologies, a diversified test and healthcare system firm, came into being in 1999 when it was spun out of Hewlett-Packard. But HP had its own history in et test market. Back in 1960 it created its first sampling oscilloscope borrowing digital computer technology. In 1985 is introduced the first microprocessor based network analyser.
Tektronix was founded in 1947 when it launched its first test products CRT-based, triggered oscilloscopes. Over the years it had a computer terminal and video production equipment businesses, but unlike HP, it did not significantly diversify outside of its core test business. In 2007, Tektronix was acquired by Danaher Corporation for $2.85bn.
Started in 1933 in a Munich apartment, Rohde & Schwarz started producing radio monitor systems in the 1940s, its first network analyser in 1950 and its first spectrum analyser in 1986. In 2010, the privately-owned company surprised the test market by launching its first oscilloscopes.
National Instruments was founded in 1976 and it developed a GPIB bus-based product to connect scientific instruments to microcomputers. It created the LabVIEW graphical development software in 1986 and launched its concept for modular computer-based systems connected by its PXI bus in 1997.
Marconi Instruments was the test instrument business of GEC. In 1998, with the break up of GEC, it was sold to US military test firm IFR Systems, which was itself taken over by Aeroflex in 2002. Still with offices in Stevenage, the company’s RF test technology is used in products such as the 7100 LTE digital radio test set.
Avnet (including Memec and Abacus)
Design tool firms
Cadence Design Systems was founded in 1988 by the merger of SDA Systems and ECAD in California. Over the years it has made many acquisitions, as is the way of the EDA industry, including Verplex Systems in 21003 and most recently Denali Software. It even eyed Mentor Graphics in 2008.
Synopsys was founded in 1986 by Dr. Aart de Geus and a team from General Electric’s Microelectronics Center in North Carolina. Its initial specialism was logic synthesis but now offers a full range of design tools following a series of acquisitions, including Synplicity in 2008. In 2009 it acquired the analogue business of MIPS Technologies.
Mentor Graphics was founded in Oregon in 1981. First computer-aided design (CAD) software, as it was known, ran on workstations from computer start-up Apollo Computer. Acquisitions include Accelerated Technology in 2002. It gained UML technology with 2004’s acquisition of Project Technology. A former Mentor executive founded embedded Linux company MontaVista in 1999.
Zuken, the PCB design tool firm, was founded in the mid-1970s in Japan. In 1994 it merged with the UK’s main PCB design tool firm Racal-Redac. The £13m deal created the largest specialist supplier of PCB design software. Further European acquisitions followed in Germany.
Keil, an embedded software tools specialist for 8051, 251, ARM, and XC16x/C16x/ST10 microcontrollers, was founded in 1986.Initially it sold add-on products for the development tools provided by semiconductor companies. Then it implemented the first C compiler designed from the ground-up specifically for the 8051 microcontroller. In 2005 Keil was acquired by ARM, to become the priocessor firm’s main design tool business.
Founded as a paper mill in Finland in 1865, Nokia entered the radio telephone market in 1979 with the launch of joint venture company Mobira. It launched its first handheld mobile phone, the Mobira Cityman, in 1987. By 1998 it was the biggest mobile phone supplier and by 2005 had sold a billion handsets.
Lars Magnus Ericsson started a mechanical engineering shop in Stockholm in 1876. 100 years later it was a global telecoms manufacturer launching its first digital exchange and entering the mobile radio market. By 1996 mobile systems accounted for 60% of sales. In 2001, it formed the Sony Ericsson handset joint venture with the Japanese consumer firm.
Vodafone’s mobile comms operator business was formed in 1984 as a subsidiary of UK-based defence and communications manufacturer Racal Electronics. It demerged from Racal Electronics and became an independent company in September 1991 under the Vodafone name. The global expansion started with a merger with AirTouch Communications in 1999. By 2005 it had 165 million customers and since then that number has doubled to 347 million customers.
Motorola was founded by the Galvin brothers in Chicago in 1928. The first product was a battery eliminator which allowed battery-powered radios to run on household electricity. A Motorola radio transponder relayed the first words from the moon to Earth in July 1969. It launched its first commercial portable cellular phone in 1983. In 2003, it was one of the first mobile firms to use a Linux operating system. The handset business could be spun-off as separate company next year.
Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) was founded in 1998 by a group of engineers from Cambridge Consultants. First products were radio chipsets for the new Bluetooth short range wireless interface standard. It took advantage of the reluctance of big name suppliers to enter the early market and became the leading supplier. It has since expanded its business through acquisitions into Wi-Fi, 3G mobile and global positioning system (GPS) silicon devices.
Programmable logic firms
Altera developed its first programmable array logic (PAL) device in 1984. These evolved into first complex PLDs and then Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are logic arrays that can be reprogrammed by the engineer during the design phase and even during operation in the “field”. Altera’s FPGAs are the Cyclone, Arria GX and Stratix series and the MAX series of CPLDs.
Xilinx was founded in 1984 by two Zilog engineers, Bernard Vonderschmitt and Ross Freeman, who wanted to develop his idea of a programmable device. Xilinx sold its first chip in 1985. After four years of venture funding the fabless chip company went public in 1989. Today its FPGAs include Spartan, Virtex and the latest Xilinx 7 series. As well as the CoolRunner-II CPLDs.
Unlike the traditional, SRAM-based programmable technology used by Altera and Xilinx, in 1985 Actel created its first FPGA using antifuse-based technology. It later acquired the technology to create the first flash-based FPGAs. Its FPGAs include the Igloo and ProAsic familes, as well as the SmartFusion mixed-signal programmable devices.
Lattice Semiconductor was founded in 1983, by C. Norman Winningstad, Rahul Sud, and Ray Capece. It developed its own programmable technology for CPLDs and FPGAs. Its FPGAs include the LatticeECP3 series and the LatticeXP2 series, which combines a look-up table based FPGA fabric with flash non-volatile cells. Its CPLDs are the MachXO series and the ispMACH 4000ZE series.
Monolithic Memories Inc. (MMI) was founded in 1969 by a former Fairchild Semiconductor engineer. It was acquired by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) in 1987. It was soon spun off by the microprocessor firm as Vantis, which was later bought by Lattice Semiconductor.
Industrial Systems firms
Thales (Thomson-CSF & incorporating Racal Electronics)
TT electronics (incorporating AB Electronic Products, BI Technologies and AEI Group)
(Editor Richard Wilson’s Hall of Fame is a personal selection of the most influential companies of the last 50 years)
- Analyst warns of dwindling high-end chip foundries (v3.co.uk)
- You: 10-K: FREESCALE SEMICONDUCTOR HOLDINGS I, LTD. (menafn.com)
- Who killed the Intel microprocessor? (asymco.com)
- IBM and ARM to work on advanced 14nm semiconductors (v3.co.uk)
- Engineers grow nanolasers on silicon, pave way for on-chip photonics (nanitenews.com)
- STMicroelectronics Announces ARM Software Support for SPEAr Microprocessor Families (prnewswire.com)