The impact of TRANSISTORS on society

The impact of TRANSISTORS on society
In 1955, an early high-speed commercial computer weighed 3 tonnes, consumed 50 kilowatts
of power, and cost $400,000. But it could perform 50 multiplications per second, a feat
unmatchable by either a human or the latest adding machine. In 1977, a handheld calculator
weighed under about 0.5 kg, consumed less than half a watt of power, could perform 250
multiplications per second, and cost $600. Today, you can buy palm-sized organizers for $250
that link to computers, transmit data, and store thousands of addresses, appointments,
memos, lists, and e-mails. The keys to this stunning revolution in personal power are the
transistor and the integrated circuit -- the centrepieces of the modern electronics systems
that swept the world in the last half of the 20th century. Brilliant engineering and innovation
lie behind these unseen elements that operate wireless communications, satellite broadcasts,
air traffic control systems, microwave ovens, video cameras, touch-tone phones, computers,
and many other products that have improved the quality, safety, and convenience of modern
The ancestor of these miniature electronic devices is the vacuum tube. Sealed inside a glass
tube, a stream of electrons carried a current through a vacuum between electrodes. Vacuum
tubes were crucial to the development of radio, television, and sound recording, and an
essential component in early telephone equipment and computers. They were also fragile,
bulky, and produced a considerable amount of waste heat. The first commercial computer,
ENIAC, incorporated 18,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 30 tonnes, filled several large rooms, and
consumed enough power to light 10 homes. Its cathode ray tubes required large amounts of
heat in order to boil out electrons, needed time to warm up, and often burned out. A universal
search to find a more compact and reliable device dominated engineering after World War II,
and these efforts laid the groundwork for what followed.
What followed was the transistor, invented in 1947 by John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and
William B. Shockley, engineers and scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The transistor's
shape and size were strikingly different from the huge arrangement of the bulky vacuum
tubes. A small metal cylinder about half an inch long contained two fine wires that ran down to
a pinhead of solid semiconductive material soldered to a metal base. The current to the
crystal on one wire controlled a larger current between the crystal and the second wire. It
contained no vacuum, grid, plate, or glass envelope to keep the air away. It produced
instantaneous action, with no need to warm up. The New York Times reported its debut with
only slight interest. Little did anyone realize this tiny device would launch the "smaller,
faster, more powerful" digital age.
Ideas to Implementation
By the early 1950s, the transistor had captured the world's imagination, first in the
transistorised radio - the fastest selling retail object of the time. Early applications included
telephone oscillators, hearing aids, automatic telephone routing devices, and other audio and
communications devices. Computers were not yet considered a key application. IBM could not
find anyone interested in selling transistors that were tailored to computers, so they
contracted with Texas Instruments to develop transistors specifically designed for digital
The transistor held great promise, but it would take several years before engineers worked
out designs and manufacturing techniques. Semiconductor material was costly and required
complex contacting methods. To help speed progress, Bell Labs licensed its transistor patent
rights freely to other companies. The rapid advance made in transistor manufacturing from
1952 to 1960 has been attributed to this open sharing of technology, and the subsequent
developments made at various industry and university laboratories and presented at open
These advances undoubtedly led to Jack Kilby's invention of the integrated circuit (IC) at
Texas Instruments in 1958. At the time, miniaturisation was driven by the Soviet's success
with the Sputnik program, and was a major objective of government-funded electronics
research programs. Kilby came up with the idea of organising numerous transistors and other
electronic components on a silicon wafer, complete with wiring. It would take much ingenuity
and effort, and the adaptation of techniques learned from earlier transistor fabrication, such
as crystal growing.
Early transistors were made by hand. Eventually, sophisticated production techniques took
hold. The real breakthrough in production was the use of oxide on silicon wafers, which
allowed selective doping by diffusion of impurities through openings in the oxide. This process
allowed contacts to the silicon to be made through other holes in the oxide. Photographic
techniques were used to pattern the openings in the silicon oxide. With these techniques,
hundreds of chips could be cut from a single slice of silicon and multiple transistors could be
placed on each chip. Early chips were about three-quarters of a millimetre on a side. Today
chips are several centimetres on a side, and can accommodate millions of transistors.
In the early 1950s, a transistor cost between $10 and $90 to make. As the semiconductor
technology improved, the transistor became faster, cheaper, and more reliable. Now the
transistors on a microchip cost less than a hundred-thousandth of a cent - so they are
virtually free.
Ideas to Implementation
At first, integrated circuits were produced by the hundreds. Then engineers developed ways
to add other components - resistors and capacitors -- to produce a microchip. As the
technology developed, more and more components could be crammed into smaller and smaller
dimensions. Gordon Moore, chairman of Intel, recognized a trend: the number of transistors
per unit was doubling every year, and later, every 18 months. This insight became known as
Moore's Law, one of the driving principles of the semiconductor industry, and Moore's vision
helped Intel become one of the world's major corporations.
Part of the magic of electronics is adding millions of transistors to a tiny silicon chip. The
rest of the magic is performed by engineers who determine their use through the
development of microprocessors - the control centre embedded in refrigerators, automobiles,
airplanes, computers, and thousands of other products.
Microchips took the transistor to an exciting new level. One microchip can operate an
automobile's electrical system or launch an air force. It made thousands of new products
possible, from heart pacemakers and hearing aids to efficient aircraft. Medical instruments,
automobiles, cellular phones, CD players, and watches all operate because of microchips.
Until microprocessors appeared on the scene, computers were essentially discrete pieces of
equipment used primarily for data processing and scientific calculations. From
microprocessors engineers developed microcomputers -- systems about the size of a lunch
box or smaller, but with enough computing power to perform many kinds of business,
industrial, and scientific tasks.
The race continues to add more and more information on a microchip. By 2010, advanced
microprocessors are expected to contain more than 800 million transistors. Where will
microchips appear next? They might appear on the front of refrigerators to monitor food
supplies and send grocery lists to the store, automatically charging credit cards or bank
accounts. Or they could be implanted in children to prevent kidnapping, or inside the human
brain to cure blindness or other medical conditions. The technology is limitless. Only
imagination will govern its potential.
Use this information to assess the impact of the invention of transistors on
society with particular reference to their use in microchips and
Ideas to Implementation