Central processing unit
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) or processor is the portion of a computer system that carries out the instructions of a computer program, and is the primary element carrying out the computer's functions. This term has been in use in the computer industry at least since the early 1960s (Weik 2007). The form, design and implementation of CPUs have changed dramatically since the earliest examples, but their fundamental operation remains much the same.
Early CPUs were custom-designed as a part of a larger, sometimes one-of-a-kind, computer. However, this costly method of designing custom CPUs for a particular application has largely given way to the development of mass-produced processors that are made for one or many purposes. This standardization trend generally began in the era of discrete transistor mainframes and minicomputers and has rapidly accelerated with the popularization of the integrated circuit (IC). The IC has allowed increasingly complex CPUs to be designed and manufactured to tolerances on the order of nanometers. Both the miniaturization and standardization of CPUs have increased the presence of these digital devices in modern life far beyond the limited application of dedicated computing machines. Modern microprocessors appear in everything from automobiles to cell phones and children's toys.
Computers such as the ENIAC had to be physically rewired in order to perform different tasks. These machines are often referred to as "fixed-program computers," since they had to be physically reconfigured in order to run a different program. Since the term "CPU" is generally defined as a software (computer program) execution device, the earliest devices that could rightly be called CPUs came with the advent of the stored-program computer.
The idea of a stored program computer was already present in the design of J. Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly's ENIAC, but was initially omitted so the machine could be finished sooner. On June 30, 1945, before ENIAC was even completed, mathematician John von Neumann distributed the paper entitled "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC." It outlined the design of a stored-program computer that would eventually be completed in August 1949 (von Neumann 1945). EDVAC was designed to perform a certain number of instructions (or operations) of various types. These instructions could be combined to create useful programs for the EDVAC to run. Significantly, the programs written for EDVAC were stored in high-speed computer memory rather than specified by the physical wiring of the computer. This overcame a severe limitation of ENIAC, which was the considerable time and effort required to reconfigure the computer to perform a new task. With von Neumann's design, the program, or software, that EDVAC ran could be changed simply by changing the contents of the computer's memory.
While von Neumann is most often credited with the design of the stored-program computer because of his design of EDVAC, others before him, such as Konrad Zuse, had suggested and implemented similar ideas. The so-called Harvard architecture of the Harvard Mark I, which was completed before EDVAC, also utilized a stored-program design using punched paper tape rather than electronic memory. The key difference between the von Neumann and Harvard architectures is that the latter separates the storage and treatment of CPU instructions and data, while the former uses the same memory space for both. Most modern CPUs are primarily von Neumann in design, but elements of the Harvard architecture are commonly seen as well.
As a digital device, a CPU is limited to a set of discrete states, and requires some kind of switching elements to differentiate between and change states. Prior to commercial development of the transistor, electrical relays and vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) were commonly used as switching elements. Although these had distinct speed advantages over earlier, purely mechanical designs, they were unreliable for various reasons. For example, building direct current sequential logic circuits out of relays requires additional hardware to cope with the problem of contact bounce. While vacuum tubes do not suffer from contact bounce, they must heat up before becoming fully operational, and they eventually cease to function due to slow contamination of their cathodes that occurs in the course of normal operation. If a tube's vacuum seal leaks, as sometimes happens, cathode contamination is accelerated. See vacuum tube. Usually, when a tube failed, the CPU would have to be diagnosed to locate the failed component so it could be replaced. Therefore, early electronic (vacuum tube based) computers were generally faster but less reliable than electromechanical (relay based) computers.
Tube computers like EDVAC tended to average eight hours between failures, whereas relay computers like the (slower, but earlier) Harvard Mark I failed very rarely (Weik 1961:238). In the end, tube based CPUs became dominant because the significant speed advantages afforded generally outweighed the reliability problems. Most of these early synchronous CPUs ran at low clock rates compared to modern microelectronic designs (see below for a discussion of clock rate). Clock signal frequencies ranging from 100 kHz to 4 MHz were very common at this time, limited largely by the speed of the switching devices they were built with.