Chip art

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Image of a buffalo, trailing buffalo chips, etched on a digital filter chip from the HP3582a audio spectrum analyzer. Buffalo chip.jpg
Image of a buffalo, trailing buffalo chips, etched on a digital filter chip from the HP3582a audio spectrum analyzer.

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.

Photolithography, also termed optical lithography or UV lithography, is a process used in microfabrication to pattern parts of a thin film or the bulk of a substrate. It uses light to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a light-sensitive chemical "photoresist", or simply "resist," on the substrate. A series of chemical treatments then either engraves the exposure pattern into the material or enables deposition of a new material in the desired pattern upon the material underneath the photo resist. For example, in complex integrated circuits, a modern CMOS wafer will go through the photolithographic cycle up to 50 times.

Microscope instrument used to see objects that are too small for the naked eye

A microscope is an instrument used to see objects that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Microscopy is the science of investigating small objects and structures using such an instrument. Microscopic means invisible to the eye unless aided by a microscope.

Easter egg (media) intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or secret feature of a work

In computer software and media, an Easter egg is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or secret feature of a work. It is usually found in a computer program, video game, or DVD/Blu-ray Disc menu screen. The name is used to evoke the idea of a traditional Easter egg hunt. The term was coined to describe a hidden message in the Atari video game Adventure that encouraged the player to find further hidden messages in later games, leading them on a 'hunt'.


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 (the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984) 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.

Copyright is a legal right, existing in many countries, that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to determine whether, and under what conditions, this original work may be used by others. This is usually only for a limited time. Copyright is one of two types of intellectual property rights, the other is industrial property rights. The exclusive rights are not absolute but limited by limitations and exceptions to copyright law, including fair use. A major limitation on copyright on ideas is that copyright protects only the original expression of ideas, and not the underlying ideas themselves.

Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984 United States intellectual property law

The Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984 is an act of the US Congress that makes the layouts of integrated circuits legally protected upon registration, and hence illegal to copy without permission. It is an integrated circuit layout design protection law.

Creating chip art

Image of a Land Shark from Saturday Night Live inside an Analog Devices AD1939 codec chip. ChipWorksLandShark.jpg
Image of a Land Shark from Saturday Night Live inside an Analog Devices AD1939 codec chip.

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.

Silicon Chemical element with atomic number 14

Silicon is a chemical element with symbol Si and atomic number 14. It is a hard and brittle crystalline solid with a blue-grey metallic lustre; and it is a tetravalent metalloid and semiconductor. It is a member of group 14 in the periodic table: carbon is above it; and germanium, tin, and lead are below it. It is relatively unreactive. Because of its high chemical affinity for oxygen, it was not until 1823 that Jöns Jakob Berzelius was first able to prepare it and characterize it in pure form. Its melting and boiling points of 1414 °C and 3265 °C respectively are the second-highest among all the metalloids and nonmetals, being only surpassed by boron. Silicon is the eighth most common element in the universe by mass, but very rarely occurs as the pure element in the Earth's crust. It is most widely distributed in dusts, sands, planetoids, and planets as various forms of silicon dioxide (silica) or silicates. More than 90% of the Earth's crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen.

Silicon dioxide chemical compound

Silicon dioxide, also known as silica, silicic acid or silicic acid anydride is an oxide of silicon with the chemical formula SiO2, most commonly found in nature as quartz and in various living organisms. In many parts of the world, silica is the major constituent of sand. Silica is one of the most complex and most abundant families of materials, existing as a compound of several minerals and as synthetic product. Notable examples include fused quartz, fumed silica, silica gel, and aerogels. It is used in structural materials, microelectronics (as an electrical insulator), and as components in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Glass amorphous solid that exhibits a glass transition when heated towards the liquid state

Glass is a non-crystalline, amorphous solid that is often transparent and has widespread practical, technological, and decorative uses in, for example, window panes, tableware, and optoelectronics. The most familiar, and historically the oldest, types of manufactured glass are "silicate glasses" based on the chemical compound silica (silicon dioxide, or quartz), the primary constituent of sand. The term glass, in popular usage, is often used to refer only to this type of material, which is familiar from use as window glass and in glass bottles. Of the many silica-based glasses that exist, ordinary glazing and container glass is formed from a specific type called soda-lime glass, composed of approximately 75% silicon dioxide (SiO2), sodium oxide (Na2O) from sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), calcium oxide (CaO), also called lime, and several minor additives.

The creative process involved in the design of these chips, a strong sense of pride in their work, and an artistic temperament combined 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.

Often this creative artist's instinct extends to the inclusion of small pictures or icons. These may be images of significance to the designers, comments related to the chip's function, inside jokes, or even satirical references. Because of the difficulty in verifying their existence, chip art has also been the subject of online hoaxes (e.g. the never-seen "bill sux" comment on a Pentium chipthe reputed "photo" showing the inscription is a hoax [1] ).

Bill Gates American business magnate and philanthropist

William Henry Gates III is an American business magnate, investor, author, philanthropist, and humanitarian. He is best known as the principal founder of Microsoft Corporation. During his career at Microsoft, Gates held the positions of chairman, CEO and chief software architect, while also being the largest individual shareholder until May 2014.

The mass production of these works of art as parasites on the body of a commercial IC goes unnoticed by most observers and is discouraged by semiconductor corporations, primarily from the fear that the presence of the artwork (which is clearly unneeded) will interfere with some necessary function in the chip or design flow. [2]

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 highly praised photography book on experiments from (mostly) the Whitesides lab. Also, the laboratory of Albert Folch (who, perhaps not coincidentally, works in BioMEMS, the same field as George Whitesides) at the University of Washington's Bioengineering Dept. has a highly popular online gallery with more than 1,700 free BioMEMS-related chip art micrographs and has already produced three art exhibits in the Seattle area, with online sales. [3]

George M. Whitesides American chemist and professor of chemistry at Harvard University

George McClelland Whitesides is an American chemist and professor of chemistry at Harvard University. He is best known for his work in the areas of NMR spectroscopy, organometallic chemistry, molecular self-assembly, soft lithography, microfabrication, microfluidics, and nanotechnology. A prolific author and patent holder who has received many awards, he received the highest Hirsch index rating of all living chemists in 2011.

Felice Frankel is a photographer of scientific images renowned for the aesthetic quality of her science photographs and her ability to communicate complex scientific information in images.

Albert Folch Folch is a Catalan scientist, writer, and artist. He is currently a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington who is known for his research into Microfluidics and BioMEMS as well as his works of scientific art.


  1. See an account of "Bill Sux" as an urban legend.
  2. The Secret Art of Chip Graffiti IEEE Spectrum article on chip artwork, by H. Goldstein, Volume: 39, Issue: 3, Mar 2002, pp. 50-55.
  3. Folch Lab ART Webpage

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