Happy 75th Birthday to the Transistor—the Device That Changed the World
75 years ago, the transistor was born. Its invention launched modern electronics as it moved from the building block of ICs, then microprocessors, and beyond.
Today marks 75 years since the birth of the transistor on December 23, 1947. Or perhaps it was last week on December 16? There’s different opinions on which is the “true” anniversary, but you can feel pretty comfortable saying that December is the birthday month of this fateful device.
No matter which day is the “proper” anniversary, the history of the transistor is fascinating. The transistor was born during experiments done in November and December by engineers John Bardeen and Walter Brattain at AT&T's Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ.
The birth of the transistor is said to be the creation of this first assembled transistor, called a "point contact transistor." Image used courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs
According to Brattain’s notes, the breakthrough moment in inventing the “point-contact transistor” was on December 16. But it was on the afternoon of December 23, 1947 that Brattain and H.R. Moore are said to have performed a demonstration for managers and colleagues at Bell Labs. And that date is often claimed as the birth of the transistor.
In this article, we round up some of the key All About Circuits articles that tell the story of the history of the transistor.
Twice Nobel Prize Winner and Co-founder of the Transistor: John Bardeen
He may not be a household name, but John Bardeen is among the most significant engineers in the history of electronics.
In 1958 Bardeen first won the Nobel Prize, sharing it with his Bell Labs colleagues William Shockley and Walter Brattain, for the invention of the transistor.
Later, in 1972 He was then awarded it again, this time sharing it with Leon Cooper and John Schrieffer, for the theory of superconductivity.
John Bardeen (top), shown here with his fellow Bell Labs engineers William Shockley (right) and Walter Brattain (seated). Image used courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs
To learn about the life and background of John Bardeen, check out this article from our Historical Engineers series:
From the Transistor to the Integrated Circuit
The transistor is one of those unique entities in engineering whereby it’s still packaged today as a single device while at the same time existing in the millions on an integrated circuit.
Indeed, the ability to etch transistors onto a single surface led to the mass production of ICs.
Texas Instruments is credited with co-discovering the IC, but the planar process that unlocked mass production happened at a company called Fairchild Semiconductor. Created in 1957 by the so-called “traitorous eight” engineers that defected from Shockley Semiconductor, Fairchild Semiconductor went on to make numerous significant contributions to the semiconductor industry.
In 1960, Fairchild’s first IC included four transistors. Image used courtesy of Computer History
Read about the intriguing birth and history of Fairchild Semiconductor in our article from earlier this year:
From the IC to Intel’s 4004 4-bit Microprocessor
Once the IC was born, the race to crafting clever and useful circuits in chip form began. This road eventually led to the idea of implementing computing on a silicon chip. Remember, in the early days of computing, a computer would occupy an entire room.
In 1969, a team up between Intel and Nippon Calculating Machine Corp. resulted in a set of core computing chips. The premiere device in that set was the Intel 4004 central processing unit (CPU). Comprising around 2,300 transistors, it is said to be the first commercially produced microprocessor.
Intel 4004 CPU chip in its first version. Image used courtesy of Intel
For an examination of the creation of Intel’s 4004 microprocessor, read our article celebrating the chip’s 50th anniversary:
Where Does the Transistor Go From Here?
What’s next for today’s birthday device: the transistor? Certainly all kinds of innovation continues to happen in transistor formats such as MOSFETs, especially as silicon carbide (SiC) tech advances.
On the processor side, the future of the transistors continues in the direction of packing more transistors on chip. Exemplifying this, Intel earlier this month threw its hat over the wall by announcing its intentions to achieve a trillion-transistor processor by 2030.
Read more about that in our article covering Intel’s IEDM 2022 conference announcements:
Whether you already celebrated the 75th anniversary last week on the 16th or today, here’s wishing a Happy Birthday to the device that changed the world, and is changing it still.
Lead article image (modified) courtesy of of Nokia Bell Labs