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microchip art

Microchip art is a microscopic non-functioning drawing impressed on the surface of the design mask used in the production of microchip s. The art, which grew out of the tradition of having chip designers "sign" their work, is created by etching into the upper metallic layers of the chip in an unused corner of the chip mask.

Because microchip art is too small to see with the human eye, its existence was not widely known until 1998 when photographer Michael Davidson accidently stumbled on an example while photographing the geometric patterns of a microchip. Davidson, who makes his living photographing ordinary objects under a high-power Nikon optical microscope, was surprised to find the children's book character "Waldo" hiding among the thousands of square microns of circuitry he was looking at. (The objective of the "Where's Waldo?" books is for children to find the Waldo character who is hidden somewhere in each page's illustration.) Davidson, who at first thought the image was a fluke, began to closely examine other microchips under his microscope and found what writer Michael Stroh has described as "the Lascaux Cave of the computer industry".

Since his initial discovery, Davidson has found and photographed a wide variety of examples of microchip art, including intricate sketches of hummingbirds, locomotives, and buffalo. After posting his microphotographs on a Web site, Davidson was pleased to have many of the chip designers contact him about their work and explain the symbolism behind the chosen design. For example, a bulldozer that appears on a chip designed in 1980 by Synertek was a mystery until it was learned that the chip was used in heavy equipment electronic monitoring systems.

Microchip art is frowned upon in some corporations, notably Intel, because the software used to create chips is programmed to spot design flaws, and, as microchips become more complex, the possibility exists that poorly executed microchip art could pose production problems. Chip designers, however, compare microchip art to the " Easter eggs" that programmers leave behind and promise that somehow creative minds will continue to "make their mark" upon their work.

The Smithsonian has a large collection of chip art.
This was last updated in April 2009
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