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The transistor: The 20th century's most important invention

Analysts and researchers call the transistor the most important invention of the 20th century on the even of its 60th birthday.

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 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 and Google 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 find our lost pets. The personal computer 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 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 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, a principal 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.

Then the transistor hit the market. The transistor is made up of switches. As switches 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 lightbulbs 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."

The 42-year-old prediction by Gordon Moore holds that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. Despite many periodic cries that that kind of pace simply could not be maintained, so far the law has 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 like 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.

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"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 blood streams 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 language they speak.

Feibus said he doesn't think a new technology will replace the transistor any time 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?"