Wednesday, April 1, 2009


In the earliest years of computers in the 1930-40s, computers were sometimes dedicated to a single task, but were far too large and expensive for most kinds of tasks performed by embedded computers of today. Over time however, the concept of programmable controllers evolved from traditional electromechanical sequencers, via solid state devices, to the use of computer technology.

One of the first recognizably modern embedded systems was the Apollo Guidance Computer, developed by Charles Stark Draper at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. At the project's inception, the Apollo guidance computer was considered the riskiest item in the Apollo project as it employed the then newly developed monolithic integrated circuits to reduce the size and weight. An early mass-produced embedded system was the Autonetics D-17 guidance computer for the Minuteman missile, released in 1961. It was built from transistor logic and had a hard disk for main memory. When the Minuteman II went into production in 1966, the D-17 was replaced with a new computer that was the first high-volume use of integrated circuits. This program alone reduced prices on quad nand gate ICs from $1000/each to $3/each, permitting their use in commercial products.

Since these early applications in the 1960s, embedded systems have come down in price and there has been a dramatic rise in processing power and functionality. The first microprocessor for example, the Intel 4004, was designed for calculators and other small systems but still required many external memory and support chips. In 1978 National Engineering Manufacturers Association released a "standard" for programmable microcontrollers, including almost any computer-based controllers, such as single board computers, numerical, and event-based controllers.

As the cost of microprocessors and microcontrollers fell it became feasible to replace expensive knob-based analog components such as potentiometers and variable capacitors with up/down buttons or knobs read out by a microprocessor even in some consumer products. By the mid-1980s, most of the common previously external system components had been integrated into the same chip as the processor and this modern form of the microcontroller allowed an even more widespread use, which by the end of the decade were the norm rather than the exception for almost all electronics devices.

The integration of microcontrollers has further increased the applications for which embedded systems are used into areas where traditionally a computer would not have been considered. A general purpose and comparatively low-cost microcontroller may often be programmed to fulfill the same role as a large number of separate components. Although in this context an embedded system is usually more complex than a traditional solution, most of the complexity is contained within the microcontroller itself. Very few additional components may be needed and most of the design effort is in the software. The intangible nature of software makes it much easier to prototype and test new revisions compared with the design and construction of a new circuit not using an embedded processor.

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