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The transistor: The most important invention of the 20th century?

After 60 analysts ponder where computers, the economy and shopping would be without it

December 12, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - You can forget inventions like air conditioning, television, the computer and the Internet. The single most important invention of the 20th century was the transistor, according to some researchers and analysts.

Yes, that's right. The transistor. The little-talked-about transistor is the building block for the processor. Without the transistor, some say our servers would be three stories high, and laptops would be a prop on Star Trek. Our televisions would still use vacuum tubes, and our cars couldn't guide us to the nearest Indian restaurant.

Heck, without the transistor, what would the digital economy look like? Would Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. have become giants? Would geeks have become cool, rich guys driving BMWs?

Probably not.

Sixty years ago -- on Dec. 16, 1947, to be exact -- the transistor was invented at Bell Labs, igniting a series of changes and advances that would change the way people listen to their favorite music, do their jobs, pay their bills, educate themselves and buy everything from books to used toaster ovens. Transistors inside pacemakers keep our hearts going. Computer chips run inside our cars, cell phones and even tiny, implantable LoJack-like devices that help find lost pets. The PC and the Internet have been phenomena, but how usable and ubiquitous would they be without millions of tiny transistors running inside laptops, desktops and servers?

  • The first transistor was about the size of the palm of a hand, with a depth of two matchbooks stacked on top of each other.
  • The first commercial device to use a transistor was the Sonotone 1010 hearing aid, created in 1953.
  • The first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, went on the market for $49.99 in 1954. The radio contains four transistors.
  • Sony Corp. introduced the first portable, transistorized TV, the TV8-301, in 1960. It had a 5-in. screen and used 23 silicon and germanium transistors.
  • Intel Corp.'s Gordon Moore in 1965 came up with what came to be known as Moore's Law, which stated that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years. Forty-two years later, Moore's Law still holds true.
  • Busicom introduced the first single-chip, pocket-size calculator, the LE-120A HANDY, in 1971.
  • In 1983, Motorola Inc. introduced the first commercial mobile phone, the DynaTAC 800X. It was powered by transistors and cost $3,995.
  • Today, a 45-nanometer Penryn chip from Intel holds 820 million transistors.
  • Intel estimates that about 10 quintillion (or a 1 followed by 19 zeros) transistors ship each year. That 10,000 times the number of ants on Earth.

"The invention of the transistor was probably the most important invention in the 20th century," said Risto Puhakka, president of VLSI Research Inc. "It has changed society. Look at transportation, computers, government, finance, manufacturing ... it's affected them all. Look at the change in the productivity of the whole economy. It's probably doubled from what it would have been without transistors."

Before transistors, vacuum tubes were turned on or off to represent zeros and ones. The tube would be turned off for a zero, and on for a one. It wasn't a very efficient technology, and [it] required a lot of tubes and bulbs and heat to do basic mathematically calculations. In fact, the term bug was coined when moths or other insects would light on the tubes and blow them out, according to Mike Feibus, an analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies Inc. By modern standards, tube-based computers were slow and enormously bulky. There was no need for a shoulder bag or a Wi-Fi connection in a hotel room.



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