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

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

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Then the transistor hit the market. Each transistor acts as a switch. As the transistors are turned on or off, current either flows or stops. Today's transistors can turn themselves on or off 300 billion times per second.

"The transistor allowed [electronic devices] to go from these light bulbs that represented a zero or one to these little transistors," said Feibus. "In the old days, you turned on a radio that used tubes, and you'd have to wait for it to warm up. When you got a transistor radio, you could walk around with it, and today you can put your whole record collection in your pocket. It was a huge leap forward.

"There's no overstating the importance of the transistor. It's even ahead of the George Foreman Grill," he said, laughing. "But seriously, I don't think any other industry has something equal to a Moore's Law or anything approaching it."

Despite many periodic cries that the pace of progress predicted by Moore's Law simply could not be maintained, it has so far held true. In recent years, however, some observers have predicted that leakage and energy consumption looked like significant roadblocks.

A new design was needed, and this fall Intel beat rivals including IBM and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. to the punch, coming up with a transistor redesign that enabled them to move from a 65-nanometer to 45nm processor technology.

The transistor is the most evolved piece of technology in history, contends Will Swope, a vice president at Intel.

"Before, we were making them one at a time. Now we're making them a billion at a time," said Swope. "The transistor has progressed from working by itself in a lab to effectively communicate with another 800 million of its closest friends on something the size of a dime. There's nothing else I could name that in that length of time has undergone that amount of technical sophistication. It certainly has evolved faster than any other technology that the world has ever created. It's been the basis of the entire computer economy -- PCs, mobile phones, Walkmans to iPods. It's changed nearly every aspect of our lives."

And analysts expect the transistor to continue to drive digital products forward into the future.

Intel's latest 45nm Penryn processor holds 820 million transistors. Puhakka said he expects that within 10 to 15 years, semiconductor companies will be squeezing 10 billion to 15 billion onto a single chip.

Swope said that as nanotechnology progresses and devices are injected into people's bloodstreams to find and fix diseased cells or organs, transistors might be either embedded inside the devices or at least control them from outside the body. He added that he expects advancing transistors will allow cell phones to shrink down to devices that can easily be woven into the fabric of your clothing. Transistors also should enable automatic language translation to be built into telephones so people easily can communicate with each other regardless of what languages they speak.

Feibus said he doesn't think a new technology will replace the transistor anytime soon. "Moore's Law? Oh, we'll get a good 15 or 20 more years out of it," he added. "Who am I to argue with Mr. Law?"

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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