In 1968, Garrett AiResearch (who employed designers Ray Holt and Steve Geller) was invited to produce a digital computer to compete with electromechanical systems then under development for the main flight control computer in the US Navy's new F-14 Tomcat fighter.

The first use of the term "microprocessor" is attributed to Viatron Computer Systems describing the custom integrated circuit used in their System 21 small computer system announced in 1968.

In 1969, CTC contracted two companies, Intel and Texas Instruments, to make a single-chip implementation, known as the CTC 1201.

In 1969, Lee Boysel, based on the 8-bit arithmetic logic units (3800/3804) he designed earlier at Fairchild, created the Four-Phase Systems Inc. AL-1, an 8-bit CPU slice that was expandable to 32-bits.

The project that produced the 4004 originated in 1969, when Busicom, a Japanese calculator manufacturer, asked Intel to build a chipset for high-performance desktop calculators.

In 1970, with Intel yet to deliver the part, CTC opted to use their own implementation in the Datapoint 2200, using traditional TTL logic instead (thus the first machine to run "8008 code" was not in fact a microprocessor at all and was delivered a year earlier).

The design of the CADC (The Central Air Data Computer) was complete by 1970, and used a MOS-based chipset as the core CPU. The design was significantly (approximately 20 times) smaller and much more reliable than the mechanical systems it competed against, and was used in all of the early Tomcat models. This system contained "a 20-bit, pipelined, parallel multi-microprocessor".

In 1970, Steve Geller and Ray Holt of Garrett AiResearch designed the MP944 chipset to implement the F-14A Central Air Data Computer on six metal-gate chips fabricated by AMI.

Along with Intel (who developed the 8008), Texas Instruments developed in 1970–1971 a one-chip CPU replacement for the Datapoint 2200 terminal, the TMX 1795 (later TMC 1795.) Like the 8008, it was rejected by customer Datapoint. According to Gary Boone, the TMX 1795 never reached production. Since it was built to the same specification, its instruction set was very similar to the Intel 8008.

In late 1970 or early 1971, TI (Texas Instruments) dropped out being unable to make a reliable part.

In April 1970, Intel hired Italian engineer Federico Faggin as The Intel 4004 project leader, a move that ultimately made the single-chip CPU final design a reality (Shima meanwhile designed the Busicom calculator firmware and assisted Faggin during the first six months of the implementation).

In 1971, Pico Electronics and General Instrument (GI) introduced their first collaboration in ICs, a complete single chip calculator IC for the Monroe/Litton Royal Digital III calculator. This chip could also arguably lay claim to be one of the first microprocessors or microcontrollers having ROM, RAM and a RISC instruction set on-chip. The layout for the four layers of the PMOS process was hand drawn at x500 scale on mylar film, a significant task at the time given the complexity of the chip.

Intel's version of the 1201 microprocessor arrived in late 1971, but was too late, slow, and required a number of additional support chips. CTC had no interest in using it.

Production units of the 4004 were first delivered to Busicom in March 1971 and shipped to other customers in late 1971.

The TMS1802NC was announced September 17, 1971 and implemented a four-function calculator. The TMS1802NC, despite its designation, was not part of the TMS 1000 series; it was later redesignated as part of the TMS 0100 series, which was used in the TI Datamath calculator. Although marketed as a calculator-on-a-chip, the TMS1802NC was fully programmable, including on the chip a CPU with an 11-bit instruction word, 3520 bits (320 instructions) of ROM and 182 bits of RAM.

The Intel 4004 is generally regarded as the first commercially available microprocessor, and cost US$60 (equivalent to $371.19 in 2018). The first known advertisement for the 4004 is dated November 15, 1971 and appeared in Electronic News. The microprocessor was designed by a team consisting of Italian engineer Federico Faggin, American engineers Marcian Hoff and Stanley Mazor, and Japanese engineer Masatoshi Shima.

The Intel 4004 was followed in 1972 by the Intel 8008, the world's first 8-bit microprocessor. The 8008 was not, however, an extension of the 4004 design, but instead the culmination of a separate design project at Intel, arising from a contract with Computer Terminals Corporation, of San Antonio TX, for a chip for a terminal they were designing, the Datapoint 2200—fundamental aspects of the design came not from Intel but from CTC.

The first multi-chip 16-bit microprocessor was the National Semiconductor IMP-16, introduced in early 1973. An 8-bit version of the chipset was introduced in 1974 as the IMP-8.

The 8008 was the precursor to the successful Intel 8080 (1974), which offered improved performance over the 8008 and required fewer support chips. Federico Faggin conceived and designed it using high voltage N channel MOS.

Motorola released the competing 6800 in August 1974, and the similar MOS Technology 6502 in 1975 (both designed largely by the same people). The 6502 family rivaled the Z80 in popularity during the 1980s.

The Intersil 6100 family consisted of a 12-bit microprocessor (the 6100) and a range of peripheral support and memory ICs. The microprocessor recognised the DEC PDP-8 minicomputer instruction set. As such it was sometimes referred to as the CMOS-PDP8. Since it was also produced by Harris Corporation, it was also known as the Harris HM-6100. By virtue of its CMOS technology and associated benefits, the 6100 was being incorporated into some military designs until the early 1980s.

In 1975, National Semiconductor introduced the first 16-bit single-chip microprocessor, the National Semiconductor PACE, which was later followed by an NMOS version, the INS8900.

A seminal microprocessor in the world of spaceflight was RCA's RCA 1802 (aka CDP1802, RCA COSMAC) (introduced in 1976), which was used on board the Galileo probe to Jupiter (launched 1989, arrived 1995).

The Zilog Z80 (1976) was also a Faggin design, using low voltage N channel with depletion load and derivative Intel 8-bit processors: all designed with the methodology Faggin created for the 4004.

Motorola introduced the MC6809 in 1978. It was an ambitious and well thought-through 8-bit design that was source compatible with the 6800, and implemented using purely hard-wired logic (subsequent 16-bit microprocessors typically used microcode to some extent, as CISC design requirements were becoming too complex for pure hard-wired logic).

Intel "upsized" their 8080 design into the 16-bit Intel 8086, the first member of the x86 family, which powers most modern PC type computers. Intel introduced the 8086 as a cost-effective way of porting software from the 8080 lines, and succeeded in winning much business on that premise.

The most significant of the 32-bit designs is the Motorola MC68000, introduced in 1979. The 68k, as it was widely known, had 32-bit registers in its programming model but used 16-bit internal data paths, three 16-bit Arithmetic Logic Units, and a 16-bit external data bus (to reduce pin count), and externally supported only 24-bit addresses (internally it worked with full 32 bit addresses). Motorola generally described it as a 16-bit processor. The combination of high performance, large (16 megabytes or 224 bytes) memory space and fairly low cost made it the most popular CPU design of its class.

The world's first single-chip fully 32-bit microprocessor, with 32-bit data paths, 32-bit buses, and 32-bit addresses, was the AT&T Bell Labs BELLMAC-32A, with first samples in 1980, and general production in 1982. After the divestiture of AT&T in 1984, it was renamed the WE 32000 (WE for Western Electric), and had two follow-on generations, the WE 32100 and WE 32200.

By the mid-1980s, Sequent introduced the first SMP server-class computer using the NS 32032. This was one of the design's few wins, and it disappeared in the late 1980s.

Intel's first 32-bit microprocessor was the iAPX 432, which was introduced in 1981, but was not a commercial success. It had an advanced capability-based object-oriented architecture, but poor performance compared to contemporary architectures such as Intel's own 80286 (introduced 1982), which was almost four times as fast on typical benchmark tests. However, the results for the iAPX432 was partly due to a rushed and therefore suboptimal Ada compiler.

The Western Design Center, Inc (WDC) introduced the CMOS WDC 65C02 in 1982 and licensed the design to several firms. It was used as the CPU in the Apple IIe and IIc personal computers as well as in medical implantable grade pacemakers and defibrillators, automotive, industrial and consumer devices.

The first commercial, single chip, fully 32-bit microprocessor available on the market was the HP FOCUS.

Motorola's success with the 68000 led to the MC68010, which added virtual memory support. The MC68020, introduced in 1984 added full 32-bit data and address buses. The 68020 became hugely popular in the Unix supermicrocomputer market, and many small companies (e.g., Altos, Charles River Data Systems, Cromemco) produced desktop-size systems.

The Western Design Center (WDC) introduced the CMOS 65816 16-bit upgrade of the WDC CMOS 65C02 in 1984. The 65816 16-bit microprocessor was the core of the Apple IIgs and later the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, making it one of the most popular 16-bit designs of all time.

The first commercial RISC microprocessor design was released in 1984, by MIPS Computer Systems, the 32-bit R2000 (the R1000 was not released).

The ARM first appeared in 1985. This is a RISC processor design, which has since come to dominate the 32-bit embedded systems processor space due in large part to its power efficiency, its licensing model, and its wide selection of system development tools.

In 1986, HP released its first system with a PA-RISC CPU.

In 1987, in the non-Unix Acorn computers' 32-bit, then cache-less, ARM2-based Acorn Archimedes became the first commercial success using the ARM architecture, then known as Acorn RISC Machine (ARM); first silicon ARM1 in 1985.

From 1993 to 2003, the 32-bit x86 architectures became increasingly dominant in desktop, laptop, and server markets, and these microprocessors became faster and more capable. Intel had licensed early versions of the architecture to other companies, but declined to license the Pentium, so AMD and Cyrix built later versions of the architecture based on their own designs.

In 1997, about 55% of all CPUs sold in the world were 8-bit microcontrollers, of which over 2 billion were sold.

In 2001, IBM introduced the first commercial multi-core processor, the monolithic two-core POWER4.

In 2002, less than 10% of all the CPUs sold in the world were 32-bit or more. Of all the 32-bit CPUs sold, about 2% are used in desktop or laptop personal computers.

In 2003, about US$44 (equivalent to $59.93 in 2018) billion worth of microprocessors were manufactured and sold.

With AMD's introduction of a 64-bit architecture backwards-compatible with x86, x86-64 (also called AMD64), in September 2003, followed by Intel's near fully compatible 64-bit extensions (first called IA-32e or EM64T, later renamed Intel 64), the 64-bit desktop era began. Both versions can run 32-bit legacy applications without any performance penalty as well as new 64-bit software.

The first monolithic multi-core processor in the personal computer market was the AMD Athlon X2, which was introduced a few weeks after the Pentium D.

Personal computers did not receive multi-core processors until the 2005 introduction, of the two-core Intel Pentium D. The Pentium D, however, was not a monolithic multi-core processor. It was constructed from two dies, each containing a core, packaged on a multi-chip module.

About 10 billion CPUs were manufactured in 2008.

In the late 1990s, only two 64-bit RISC architectures were still produced in volume for non-embedded applications: SPARC and Power ISA, but as ARM has become increasingly powerful, in the early 2010s, it became the third RISC architecture in the general computing segment.

In 2011, ARM introduced a new 64-bit ARM architecture.