Thank You Mr. Transistor

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One of my favorite questions is, what do you think the greatest invention of the 20th century was? Of all time? There’s no right or wrong here – 20 people may give you 20 different answers. But, my answer still is – the transistor.

Created in 1947, none if its inventors really cashed-in on this tremendous achievement – not directly. They did give us the very beginning of Silicon Valley – as one of the inventors eventually moved and started a tech business there. I won’t go into those details – because – they’re readily available on the Internet and it would be “easy” to copy and paste. But yes, Silicon Valley is there because of the transistor.

The first consumer use for the transistor was putting an AM radio to market. The first transistor radio – The Regency – debuted in 1954 just in time for holiday gift giving at $49.95. The only other choice was a portable tube radio – which required A & B batteries. In portable radios of the day – tubes needed more “babying” and required a filament voltage provided by an “A” battery – plus – a higher plate or B+ voltage (B) battery – before any kind of biasing could occur. Transistors eliminated these voltages – all that was necessary for circuit designers was to start with biasing (given the transistor gain and rail voltage.) Because of their warm/hot filaments – tubes wore out much quicker and they could dry out circuit capacitors. Heat in any electronic circuit just isn’t good.

It took a few more years – but transistors began showing up in household radios, tape recorders, record players, stereos – and then… television sets. As pointed out in my last article – the first consumer device made possible by the transistor was the Pager – and that was back in 1962.

Transistors pretty much drive everything today – from our smart phones to motors (pool motors, air conditioning – you name it) – any kind of LED/LCD visual display, power supplies, transmitters, receivers and of course, computing and everything else. Let’s put it this way, if your house still has an A/C motor driving your central air – it’s out-of-date. A comparable transistor-driven DC motor is much more efficient.

Transistors amplify, switch & regulate with ease. They’re used everywhere and each one of us relies on millions of transistors each day. Literally, we use transistors in more devices with each passing year – and – designs get better and better. For example – today, we can mimic “three-phase” power in our homes – this to better run heavy-duty motors such as described above. How cool is that?

At first – transistors were discrete devices – that is – in any circuit you could touch, feel – even test and replace. Open up a 1960’s transistor radio – and – there they were. Early transistors were made of germanium – and these were prone to temperature changes. Silicon proved a much better semi-conductor and – there’s plenty of it.

Today – discrete transistors can be found in high-power circuits such as the final stages of larger amplifiers – or – a transistor that must drive a high-current device such as a motor. Usually though – most of them have disappeared into IC etchings.

So yes – discrete circuits turned into microcircuits (a bundle of discrete transistors, resistors etc) and morphed into integrated circuits – where the transistor and associated electronics are etched into a wafer. This all ushered-in the PC era (thanks to companies such as Intel).

Anything electronic today uses transistors. All circuit stages. Think of all the high-tech – not just in your home, but in hospitals, emergency services, industry – from microprocessors to two-way communication. Next time you turn up the volume – that’s a class A-B transistor amplifier driving your speakers. How many transistors in your phone’s microprocessor? What about the other circuits in your phone – receivers, transmitters, visual display, audio?

Now that you’ve thought about it – does the transistor top your list?


Gary West

Historian Gary West built his first website in 1998 with That addressed now forwards to - an amazing pop culture/news database with 25,000 pages, covering the years 1955-2014. He's also the author of - covering consumer technology from 1952 to the present. West has been a contributor to numerous books, radio-TV shows, CNN & USA Today & the History Channel.

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