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A History of Embedded Systems: The Apollo Guidance Computer and Beyond
Staff Writer

Embedded systems are everywhere, from the cars we drive to the phones in our pockets. But it wasn’t always like this. It was only in the 1960s with the Apollo Guidance Computer that embedded systems first made their mark on history. Let’s take a look at how this groundbreaking technology works and what role it has played in shaping the world we live in today.

What is an Embedded System?

An embedded system is a computerized system designed to perform a specific set of tasks or operations. It functions within a larger system and usually consists of both hardware and software components. Examples include medical devices, security systems, industrial controllers, and even some home appliances such as washing machines and microwaves.

The First Embedded System: The Apollo Guidance Computer

The first embedded system to be widely recognized was the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). Developed by MIT for NASA's Apollo Program in 1965, the AGC was used to control all onboard equipment used during space missions. It enabled the spacecraft to perform complex calculations and control operations that would have otherwise been too difficult for humans to complete. The AGC had four processor boards and five memory modules, with each module containing 70 kB of memory. It used an advanced combination of software and hardware to run its programs, which included guidance, navigation and control systems. This provided an unprecedented level of accuracy and precision during the mission.

The Operations of the Apollo Guidance Computer

The AGC acted like a "brain" for the spacecraft, providing guidance on how it should operate at any given moment in its flight path. By relying on digital signals sent from Earth-based computers, as well as readings from on-board sensors, the AGC was able to make decisions on how to control the spacecraft's speed, altitude, direction, etc. It could also calculate trajectories based on information gathered from its onboard sensors and guide the spacecraft back into orbit when necessary.

Astronaut on the moon with American flag Photo by NASA on Unsplash

In addition to controlling operations on board the spacecraft, the AGC also helped astronauts monitor their position in space by displaying their coordinates on its display screen. This helped them keep track of their location and make sure they stayed on course during their mission. The AGC's capabilities also enabled mission controllers back home to have up-to-date information about what was happening aboard their craft while they were out of contact range with Earth.

Advancement of Embedded Systems

Embedded systems have had a number of major milestones since the AGC that changed the course of embedded technology history. From first attempts to take tiny computers from the desktop and embed them into everyday items, to the emergence of embedded systems in automobiles and appliances, embedded systems have been transforming traditional technologies for decades. One of the most significant moments occurred in 1973 when Intel released the first microprocessor, a major catalyst for the embedded system revolution taking small computing devices out of isolated control and ushering in a new era of embedded systems applications. Through the 1970s and 1980s, embedded processing became increasingly popular as more and more companies adopted it for use within their own applications. By the early 2000s, embedded solutions had progressed to such a degree that embedded computers had become engrossed in many of the devices used in daily life.

Even to this day, embedded systems are still progressing - we're now seeing embedded systems being integrated into more Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications than ever before. With this integration, machines can now carry out more complex functions such as robust autonomous navigation and sophisticated speech recognition. The possibilities are endless ­– enabling us to explore new dimensions and realize goals that were considered science fiction just a few years ago.

The Impact of Embedded Systems Today

Embedded systems have come a long way since the development of the AGC in 1965. This development marked a turning point in both space exploration and computing history; without it we may not be able to enjoy all of the benefits that these powerful pieces of technology provide us with today, including everyday objects we use such as cars, phones, refrigerators, watches, cameras, and more. Thanks to advancements made over five decades ago with the AGC we can now use embedded systems not only for space exploration but also for improving everyday life here on Earth too.

How Total Phase Supports Debugging and Developing Embedded Systems

Total Phase is a leading provider of powerful solutions for debugging and developing embedded systems thanks to our wide range of hardware and software products. From host adapters intended for making hardware connection simple, to protocol analyzers allowing developers to gain a deep understanding of how their systems are behaving, Total Phase provides the best tools the industry has to offer.

Developers are able to easily access information from a variety of popular targets or interfaces (like SPI, I2C, CAN, USB, eSPI) as our products provide everything they need for debugging and developing embedded systems efficiently.

I2C/SPI Host Adapters

For I2C and SPI system development, Total Phase offers I2C/SPI host adapters to allow users to program memory devices, as well as emulate master and/or slave devices to validate responses and communication occurring on the bus.

The Aardvark I2C/SPI Host Adapter is well-suited for general-purpose testing and memory programming, the Cheetah SPI Host Adapter is specialized for high-speed memory programming, and the Promira Serial Platform is best for advanced speeds and applications.

I2C/SPI, USB, and eSPI Protocol Analyzers

For testing and debugging I2C, SPI, USB, and eSPI systems, Total Phase offers protocol analyzers that monitor bus traffic in real time. This allows engineers to verify communication between devices and ensure there are no protocol errors or bugs.

The Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer can non-intrusively monitor I2C and SPI traffic, and our line of Beagle USB Protocol Analyzers can monitor a range of USB speeds, each with their own unique features and capabilities for debugging specific USB applications. Total Phase also offers an eSPI Analysis Application for the Promira Serial Platform to easily monitor eSPI traffic in real time.

CAN Interface

For CAN system development, Total Phase offers the Komodo CAN Duo Interface, which can act as both a non-intrusive bus monitor as well as an active CAN adapter simultaneously.

To learn more about how our tools can assist with testing and developing your own embedded system, please contact us at sales@totalphase.com.

For more information on how our line of embedded solutions can help advanced your I2C, SPI, USB, CAN, and/or eSPI projects, please contact sales@totalphase.com.