One of the Most Vital Inventions to Modern Life Turns 75: The Transistor
December 2022 marked 75 years since the advent of the—ever important yet rarely considered—transistor. This semiconductor allows virtually all of the electronics we use to function. It fills the chips we use daily without giving any thought to how vital they are to our modern existence.
But how did this invention whose importance has been compared to fire even come about?
In this article we’ll take a brief look at the origins of the transistor and why it’s such an important part of modern history.
How a Transistor Works
Without getting too technical, a transistor is a tiny switch that either allows electrical signals through or turns them away—a zero or a one. As a semiconductor, it’s essentially an on-off switch with no moving parts needed.
This was initially made possible using germanium, but is often achieved these days with very pure silicon. However, a semiconductor can even be made from sand.
As simple of an idea as it is, computer chips couldn’t work without the transistor. Now, they’re all around us, all the time.
Where Did Transistors Come From?
Julius Edgar Lilienfield proposed the idea for the first ever field effect transistor all the way back in 1925, but did not have the means to turn his concept into reality at the time.
In 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain from Bell Labs in New Jersey made a breakthrough. The first ever transistor was born, and both men and their supervisor, William Shockley, were eventually given Nobel prizes for their work.
AT&T (AKA “the phone company”), which was the biggest company in the world at the time, owned Bell Labs, and continued to develop the technology for the next several years.
They went on to sell licenses for their invention, and it worked its way into the radio industry, with the first transistor radio being mass-produced in 1954.
The most commonly used transistor in today’s electronics is the MOSFET (metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor), which was developed in 1959.
Sony & Bell Labs
Sony, who had bought a license for AT&T’s transistors and created portable and affordable radios that swept the market and eventually are them into a juggernaut.
In 1984, AT&T’s monopoly was broken up by a federal government court ruling, but Bell Labs survived. The federal government had bound AT&T to be a telecommunications company, limiting their abilities to become a tech giant themselves.
AT&T having a monopoly on the telecommunications ended up causing them to miss out on a lot of potential growth. The federal government was careful not to allow one company to own too much at the time.
Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, stated that the amount of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years. This basically means that the capacity for technology increases linearly over time, and its progress can be predicted.
Ever wonder how companies like Apple can plan on releases for technology they haven’t even finished developing yet? Moore’s law is part of the reason.
Moore himself and his companies provided much of the funding that continued the development of computer chip technology over the years. His contributions were so great that he got a law named after him.
Transistors Today, Tomorrow and Their Impact on Our Lives
Transistors are in every modern piece of tech that we use. From laptops to TVs to alarm clocks and everything in between, transistors are essential to our modern lives.
In the future, we can expect to rely on devices with transistors in them even more, especially with the IoT (internet of things) becoming so commonplace. Virtually everything is being turned into a smart device with interconnectivity, and transistors make that all possible.