Happy 70th birthday to the transistor

15th December 2017
Mick Elliott

This coming Saturday, 16 December, celebrates the 70th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. It was the result of research at Bell Labs, New Jersey, USA by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain and was first shown to the world a week later on 23 December 1947, writes Malcolm Penn, CEO of market research company Future Horizons.

It was the most important electronics event of the 20th century as it formed the basis of modern electronics.

The first product using transistors was a hearing aid from Sonotone, in December 1952, which, although only a small, niche market, showed how products could be built smaller, more reliably and with less power consumption than their valve (vacuum tube) predecessors.

Two years later, a joint collaboration between Regency Electronics (the proprietary product division of IDEA, an independent contract electronic equipment manufacturer in Indianapolis) and Texas Instruments (an up and coming transistor developer in Dallas) combined Regency's vision and radio expertise with Texas Instruments' technology and strong financial backing to produce the world's first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1.

It was the smallest and most affordable radio that the world had ever seen and it triggered a worldwide demand for small and portable electronic products that bred the DNA for today's personal electronic devices.

Built predominantly on silicon (sand), transistor technology successfully combined several branches of science, including physics, chemistry, mechanics, mathematics and computer sciences, to build products of ever-increasing complexity.

The TR-1 had 4 transistors; the current Intel Skylake Xeon microprocessor 7.2 billion, whilst the latest nVidia and AMD GPUs have well over 10 billion and the most advanced memory devices from Samsung and Micron a mind-boggling 40 billion. 

A typical iPhone 8 contains around 100 billion transistors.

2017 will also see the semiconductor industry exceed US$400 billion; a truly fitting achievement for this unsung hero of the digital age.

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