Electronic Design

The Transistor Turns 60

It is hard to believe, in today’s world of miniaturization and shrinking components, that the first transistor ever created can be seen by the naked eye. Sitting in a display case in Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., the transistor — created by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain on December 16, 1947 — looks like a triangular quartz crystal with wires soldered on it haphazardly. Sixty years later, these devices can only be seen with the help of an extremely powerful microscope. Billions of them can fit into the space occupied by their prototype. That’s a testament to the rapid pace of innovation that’s evolved since this device replaced bulky, unreliable vacuum tubes in advanced electronic communications. It has sparked the foundation of Silicon Valley, the invention of the Integrated Circuit, and the ubiquitous use of electronic devices. Today’s microprocessors, memory chips and other semiconductor devices incorporate billions of transistors onto a single chip in order to create faster, more energy-efficient computers. But as engineers attempt to pack more processing power into a smaller space, some worry that the limits of Moore’s Law — an axiom established by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore stating that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 2 years — are fast approaching. To remedy this, companies like Intel and IBM are coming up with alternatives. In November, Intel released its first family of 45-nanometer chips that use the high-k + metal gate transistor model. The redesign swaps silicon-dioxide insulation and a silicon gate for a high-k dielectric insulator and a metal gate. IBM has been promoting its carbon nanotube transistors, which it says can outperform standard contemporary silicon transistors. The company says it has demonstrated the world’s first logic-performing computer circuit based on a single carbon nanotube. Moore’s Law, however, is predicted to apply for at least another decade. Today’s transistors are efficient enough to power billions of calculations in seconds. Transistors in Intel’s Core Duo processor, for example, turn on and off more than a trillion times per second. That enables the processor to complete close to a billion calculations in the blink of an eye, or finish four million calculations in the time it takes a speeding bullet to travel one inch, according to an Intel release. It’s a far cry from the transistors that technology editor Don Tuite remembers encountering in the 1950s — like the CK722. The Raytheon device was the first transistor available to the general public. It cost about $7, or around $100 in today’s currency. Experimenters, engineers and radio hams grabbed them up to create radios, oscillators, electronic voltmeters, photoelectric alarms, and hearing aids. The CK722 was followed by General Electric’s (GE’s) 2N107, which at $2 apiece was a better value and subsequently became the basis for hundreds of designs in the electronics magazines of the next half-decade, Tuite said. Today, the price of a transistor in Intel's newest chip family is about one-millionth the average price of a transistor in 1968. If car prices had fallen at the same rate, a new car today would cost about one cent. Though these transistors aren’t for tinkering, and though problems like power consumption and electricity leakage need to be addressed, their existence will continue to play a key role in technological innovation.

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