Inside the 74181 ALU chip: die photos and reverse engineering

What’s inside a TTL chip? To find out, I opened up a 74181 ALU chip, took high-resolution die photos, and reverse-engineered the chip.1 Inside I found several types of gates, implemented with interesting circuitry and unusual transistors. The 74181 was a popular chip in the 1970s used to perform calculations in the arithmetic-logic unit (ALU) of minicomputers. It is a moderately complex chip containing about 67 gates and 170 transistors3, implemented using fast and popular TTL (transistor-transistor logic) circuitry.

The 74181 die photo is below. (Click the image for a high-resolution version.) The golden stripes are the metal layer that interconnects the circuitry of the chip. (It’s not gold, just aluminum that looks golden from the lighting.) The white squares around the edge of the die are the pads that are connected by tiny bond wires to the external pins. Under the metal layer is the silicon that makes up the chip. Faint lines show the doped silicon regions that make up the transistors and resistors. While the chip may appear impossibly complex at first, with careful examination it is possible to understand how it works.


The 74181 chip is important because of its key role in minicomputer history. Before the microprocessor era, minicomputers built their processors from boards of individual chips. The arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction) and logical operations (AND, OR, XOR) were performed by the arithmetic/logic unit (ALU) in the processor.

for more detail: Inside the 74181 ALU chip: die photos and reverse engineering

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