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Tiny wonders: 75 years on, transistors are still evolving everything — including us

January 3, 2023
Matt A.V. Chaban

Senior Editor, Transform

The transistor may just be the most manufactured item on the planet. Here's how it's changing pretty much everything it touches... which is pretty much everything.

Seventy-five years ago, Bell Labs — birthplace of the laser, photovoltaic cells, telecommunications satellites, and an encyclopedia-worth of programming languages — released one of its smallest, and biggest, inventions: the transistor.

It was the brainchild of Walter Brattain and John Bardeen, a creation that would soon evolve and replace vacuum tubes as the first reliable solid-state electronic switch. It was this shift that helped usher in the era of modern computing.

The transistor might be the most manufactured piece of equipment in history. Today, 114 billion transistors can fit into the best commercially available computer processing units, like those found in smartphones or high-end laptops. The transistor’s proliferation and evolution has made the modern world possible and changed the nature of human existence.

The story of the transistor and its impact has been widely told. But one interesting and underappreciated aspect of the transistor has been its effect on how we design products and what we do with them. 

“Thinking about the progression of product design over the years, it really has been incredibly influenced by the transistor,” Simon Floyd, the director of manufacturing and transportation industries at Google Cloud, said. “Technology is defining the way we solve problems in our lives”

A replica of the first transistor at the Bell Labs museum in New Jersey. (Photo: Jeff Keyzer/Flickr)

For instance, Floyd points out the case of the Sony Walkman. If you wanted portable music before the Walkman was released in 1979, the choice was to either blast it from the radio in your car, or lug around a massive boombox. The Walkman changed the way people thought about their relationship with music, making it personal and portable. The form factor of an entire industry was transformed. In time, the concept of portable and personal music would lead to the development of ever smaller and more useful devices, like the CD player, the iPod, and now wireless earbuds.

“One guiding principle of the transistor, and electronics in general, is that it provides increasing levels of functionality, but also it influences the form factor,” Floyd said. “Products designed today look very different from those five or 10 years ago. They are rapidly becoming computers with a purpose and provide the potential to evolve with our needs.”

In a sense, the transistor has shaped our very relationship with music — and so much else.

Form follows capability

The term “form follows function” was originally coined from the world of architecture, where “the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose.” While this general principle mostly holds up well in the realm of product design, in the context of the transistor, form more accurately follows capability.

With the unimpeded march of Moore’s Law leading the way, computer chips built with transistors have become more powerful while consistently decreasing in size. Structures on a computer chip are now measured in nanometers. With a commensurate decrease in cost, transistor-driven products have infiltrated nearly every type of product.

“You didn't know there was a better way to vacuum your floor until someone came up with a robot to do it for you,” Floyd said.

In a matter of decades, the transistor has powered myriad technological advances.

The power of the transistor has transformed the realm of potential and possibility for just about every form and function we can imagine. For instance, a gadget that we now think of as cheap and simple, a laser measuring device that uses a laser diode with some onboard computing to calculate distances instead of physical tape, would have been impossible before the transistor.

“At the end of the day, someone said there has to be a better way to take measurements,” Floyd said. “There is quite a lot more innovation occurring in the consumer space under the banner of the transistor. It's demonstrating its ability to make our lives better without being obtrusive. I love that.”

An evolution in technology, and humanity

To take the concept a step further, the evolution of the transistor and its effect on product design has led to a commensurate evolution in human behavior and capability. Going back to our audio example, as the record player became the boombox became the Walkman became, eventually, wireless earbuds like the Pixel Buds, it enabled a lot more than just music. Those earbuds are more than just a means of listening to music; they can also help read your messages, control voice-activated devices, and even translate foreign languages.

Think about that for a second: We’ve gone from the concept of portable music being a novelty to the ability to have a universal translator in our ears — all in about 40 years. 

You can see the concept of product evolution leading to the enhancement of human capability just about everywhere, too. 

There is quite a lot more innovation occurring in the consumer space under the banner of the transistor. It's demonstrating its ability to make our lives better without being obtrusive.

Athletes now have sensors to track and improve their performance, maximizing their training (for example, last year’s Tour de France had its fastest average speed ever). Vehicles are increasingly autonomous, leading to safer and more efficient travel. Doorbells can detect if that person at the door is the delivery driver or an intruder. Scientific research has expanded the realm of what is possible to study, whether that's translating the communication of animals or using small sensors to test medicine with nematodes

The transistor has been at the center of all of these accomplishments, letting people design solutions to solve new and unique problems.

Expanding and combining capabilities

To a certain extent, we’ve now reached a critical mass of technologies that, when combined, can unlock even greater potential. 

In the cloud, transistors power the architecture of the Information Age and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The cloud has led to greater advancements in storing, processing, and analyzing data, which has led to the modern era of artificial intelligence. The cloud has made devices on the edge of the network smarter and more capable, such as sensors that help streamline production in a factory, or keep our communication networks running at optimal levels.

“The cloud is super interesting because of the ability to create these new outcomes without the burden of physical constraints,” Floyd said. “Because you can use a data center to compute an outcome that would not be possible in a handset, yet retain the handset form factor. You’re not limited by the transistor when you have billions of them running in a data center, and that's really driving innovation in the products we design.”

Smart devices, smart manufacturing, and smart cities festooned with sensors, drones, and semi-autonomous vehicles, all rely on the tiny transistor.

Transistors, available anywhere and everywhere, in ever more intelligent devices, powering our algorithms and datasets, constantly producing more human capability. It’s a virtuous cycle of innovation, with new and fantastic outcomes that are almost impossible to predict in the years and decades to come.

“The cloud is essentially providing an innovation platform, so designers can evolve the doorbell in new ways without changing the hardware,” Floyd said. “Recognition of packages delivered to your door, or a family member entering the house are both great examples of capabilities that could not exist or evolve without the sheer scale of the cloud.” 

“Funnily enough,” he added, “our desire to miniaturize everything is driving the build-out of enormous data centers — and at the end of the day, none of this would be possible without the transistor.”

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