Accessibility links

World: The Transistor Turns Fifty

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 29 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- On a cold December day 50 years ago two American physicists at a laboratory in the northeastern U.S. state of New Jersey unveiled a small, bizarre-looking electronic device that would eventually revolutionize the world and spawn the birth of the modern Information Age.

The two scientists, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain probably had no idea that the small device would completely transform the technological landscape of today's world.

At the time the device was rather crude in appearance -- a delicate contraption with three tiny pieces of metal and some wires pressed to a small sliver of a grayish-white chemical element called germanium.

The device, called the transistor, was able to boost the power of electrical signals. It could perform the same function as vacuum tubes, which were then present in most radio receivers, but in a much smaller capacity, faster and without requiring a cumbersome heating element and an enormous amount of energy.

When Bardeen and Brattain presented the invention to their laboratory research leader William Shockley on that snowy December day, Shockley declared the invention to be "a magnificent Christmas present" to the world. Shockley himself had worked for many years trying to create such a device, but without success.

Years later Shockley recalled: "I experienced frustration that my personal efforts, started more than eight years before, had not resulted in a significant inventive contribution of my own."

Still, Shockley was so inspired by his colleagues' efforts that a month later he designed a significantly improved version of the device that was cheaper and easier to mass produce. It would become the model for all transistors that were to follow.

Two years later, Shockley would rightly predict that the transistor would become the "nerve cell" of the twentieth century. In 1956, Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Today, nearly all of the high-tech inventions that most people use in their everyday lives can be linked to the transistor, including radios, computers, television, digital watches, cellular phones, smoke alarms, air bags for cars, toasters, and, of course, the Internet.

Michael Riordan, a physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and a co-author of the recently published book, "Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age," told RFE/RL that the transistor is as important an invention as the steam engine.

Says Riordan: "There is no question that the transistor spawned today's Information Age. Without it, we wouldn't have many of the devices we use in our everyday lives."

Riordan says the transistor's most valuable feature is that it can be dramatically miniaturized. It is this remarkable ability that fueled a revolution in the high-tech and computer industries, he says.

The first commercially-produced transistor, says Riordan, was about one centimeter long. By the late 1950's they were measured in millimeters. The invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 further reduced the size of transistors to less than a millionth of a meter, he adds.

Riordan says today's transistors are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye.

He explains: "Every computer that we know of today has at its heart a microchip called the microprocessor. Today, the best microprocessors ... have about 7.5 million transistors on them."

Riordan says in addition to the fact that the transistor can be shrunk to minuscule proportions, its other major importance is that it is inexpensive to produce.

According to Riordan, a transistor costs a fraction of one U.S. cent to make. He adds that the cost of producing a transistor has plummeted more than a million times since 1947. Today, Riordan says there are more than a trillion transistors in existence around the world, with that number doubling every 18 months.

But the transistor did more than just shape the future of mankind's technological advancement. He says the transistor can even be credited with promoting democracy around the globe.

Riordan says the transistor made it possible for ordinary individuals around the world to harness enormous computing and communications power. Had the transistor not been invented, he adds, large governmental agencies, big corporations and the military would have been the only ones with access to such power.

Besides, Riordan adds, without the transistor there would be no Internet. And without the Internet there would be few ways for people of all nationalities to freely exchange information, ideas and knowledge -- the basis for a democracy.