In April 1969, Intel introduced its first product: the 3101 static random-access memory (SRAM).
Intel had begun operations less than a year earlier, in August 1968. At first, the company dedicated itself wholly to research and development, wanting to make the most of its fresh start and develop new technologies instead of just replicating old ones. To develop a product as quickly as possible, the company had pursued three technologies at once: 1) bipolar memory, a product that used established technology but was hard to develop; 2) silicon gate metal-oxide semiconductor memory, which could revolutionize chip making but needed to be invented first; and 3) multichip memory, in which four small memory chips which were linked together to create a device that was bulky and fragile but cheap. Whichever device proved its viability the fastest would become Intel’s first product. The winner turned out to be the bipolar memory, the 64-bit 3101, a product whose speed in development was a victory in itself.
Honeywell, Inc. had announced a readiness to purchase 64-bit SRAMS from any company that made them, trigging a competition among memory manufacturers. As a new company, Intel started out at the back of the pack. In trying to develop a product that was faster and more powerful than its competitors’, Intel was placing a big wager that it could conquer the standard obstacles more quickly than conventional wisdom thought was possible — and do so while facing all the additional problems that came with building up a semiconductor fabrication operation from scratch.
The wager paid off. The 64-bit (SRAM) chip achieved twice the speed of the SRAMS already on the market. Honeywell chose not to use the chip, but Intel found success among other customers. Perhaps more importantly, as a Silicon Valley historian noted in 2014, the technical victory sent a message: “The company was on its way — and had given notice to the rest of the industry that it would be a serious competitor, a technological innovator, and manufacturer capable of achieving high enough yields to get to the market in the shortest amount of time.”
Bipolar memory used established technology. Competitors who took comfort in that fact would not have that consolation for long. Intel’s next product, the 1101 SRAM, would be a far bigger milestone in the history of technology. Released later in 1969, the 1101 was the first commercial chip to use a metal-oxide semiconductor process and rely on silicon gates rather than metal. It thereby changed semiconductor technology forever while establishing an important revenue stream for Intel.
Between the two devices, the 3101 and the 1101, Intel had established in its first calendar year of operations that it could outperform competitors in improving upon established technologies while also beating them to the development of long-sought breakthroughs.