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‘And then I invented … the microprocessor. Yeah, that’s the ticket.’

A recent correspondent objected to my assertion that all NASA has ever given us — other than some bodies and scrap metal strewn over the landscape — is “Tang!” and a toilet plunger.

The writer actually insisted NASA developed the microprocessor.


Depending on whether we refer to www.pbs.org/transistor/background1/events/micropinv.html, or www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,155487,00.html, the inventor of the microprocessor was either engineer Ted Hoff at Intel Corp., based in Santa Clara, Calif., (1969 to 1971, according to most business texts), or a Los Angeles inventor named Gilbert Hyatt, who fought and won a 20-year battle with the patent office over intellectual ownership of a single-chip microprocessor which he says he invented in 1968.

Hoff’s version is that he got his chance to prove a chip could do a lot more than a mere transistor when a Japanese company called BUSICOM asked Intel to make the chips for its new line of calculators.

Hoff and engineer Frederico Faggin’s first chip was called the 4004. It was 1/8th by 1/16th inch with 2300 transistors etched into the silicon. All by itself it was as powerful as ENIAC, the early (30 tons) electric computer built in 1946.

But nowhere in either account of the “birth of the microprocessor” do we run into any mention of NASA.

In fact, the computer equipment used in and required for servicing our current fleet of Space Porkies is so out of date NASA regularly advertises for out-of-date 1970s computer parts to keep its systems running.

NASA may BUY a lot of computers. But that’s like saying I was responsible for "the development and popularization of" the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird, because I created a market by occasionally buying one.

I suspect the writer may have fallen for the PR efforts of NASA’s self-aggrandizing “Spinoff” magazine, whose claims were exhaustively debunked by David Owen five years ago at www.slate.com/id/2078104/ — a highly recommended read.

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