Transistor celebrates its 60th birthday

December 17, 2007 | 11:59

Tags: #bell #birthday #invention #john #labs #transistor #william

Sunday saw the transistor reach a venerable milestone – the ubiquitous technology is now sixty years old.

Bell Labs employees William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain constructed the first viable point-contact transistor on the 16th December 1947. Named for an abbreviation of the words “transconductance” and “varistor”, the transistor is one of those inventions which genuinely revolutionised the world.

Before transistors were developed computing devices were either wholly mechanical (viz Babbage's Analytical Engine) or based on slow and bulky vacuum tubes (ENIAC and all descendants thereof). The transistor was a massive breakthrough and since that day sixty years ago has been incorporated in everything from computers to radios, albeit in junction-based rather than point-contact form. D'uh.

Although the original transistor was a bulky thing, created as it was purely by hand and easily visible to the naked eye from half a room away, modern transistors have been miniaturised to the point that an average computer processor contains more than 200 million of them in an area no bigger than your little fingernail.

The transistors used in modern computing devices act as teeny-tiny switches, capable of flipping between 0 and 1 in significantly less than the blink of an eye. Although a switch capable of nothing more than 'on' and 'off' doesn't sound that useful, put enough of them together and you get games like Call of Duty 4.

Even with companies like IBM working on moving to optical computing and the oft-promised but seldom-delivered breakthroughs promised by quantum computing it's fair to say that the transistor will still have a place at the heart of electronics for many years to come.

So, charge your glasses and raise a toast to the transistor: without it, you wouldn't be reading this now.

Any old-timers here remember buying a kit-based transistor radio? Perhaps an enterprising modder has had a go at making their own point-contact transistor? Reminisce via the forums.
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