Chip Graffiti

Hardware Easter egg

Chip art, also known as silicon art, chip graffiti or silicon doodling, refers to microscopic artwork built into integrated circuits, also called chips or ICs. Since ICs are printed by photolithography, not constructed a component at a time, there is no additional cost to include features in otherwise unused space on the chip.

Designers have used this freedom to put all sorts of artwork on the chips themselves, from designers’ simple initials to rather complex drawings. Given the small size of chips, these figures cannot be seen without a microscope. Chip graffiti is sometimes called the hardware version of software easter eggs (an intentional hidden message or feature).

Prior to 1984, these doodles also served a practical purpose. If a competitor produced a similar chip, and examination showed it contained the same doodles, then this was strong evidence that the design was copied (a copyright violation) and not independently derived. A 1984 revision of the US copyright law made all chip masks automatically copyrighted, with exclusive rights to the creator, and similar rules apply in most other countries that manufacture ICs. Since an exact copy is now automatically a copyright violation, the doodles serve no useful purpose.

Integrated Circuits are constructed from multiple layers of material, typically silicon, silicon dioxide (glass), and aluminum. The composition and thickness of these layers give them their distinctive color and appearance. These elements created an irresistible palette for IC design and layout engineers. The creative process involved in the design of these chips, a strong sense of pride in their work, and an artistic temperament compels people to want to mark their work as their own. It is very common to find initials, or groups of initials on chips. This is the design engineer’s way of ‘signing’ his or her work.

Some laboratories have started collaborating with artists or directly producing books and exhibits with the micrographs of these chips. Such is the case of Harvard chemist George Whitesides, who collaborated with pioneer photographer Felice Frankel to publish ‘On the Surface of Things,’ a photography book on experiments from the Whitesides lab. Also, the laboratory of Albert Folch, at the University of Washington’s Bioengineering Dept. has a highly popular online gallery of chip art micrographs.

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