Bardeen, Shockley, Brattain at Bell Labs, 1948. Bardeen, Shockley, Brattain at Bell Labs, 1948.

On December 16, 1947, Bell Labs researchers William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain created an amplifier from a germanium crystal that boosted an input signal by 100 times. Various researchers had tried to develop a solid-state alternative to electromechanical switches and delicate vacuum tubes during the war. The Bell Labs Trio demonstrated it for lab officials a week later on December 23: Shockley deemed it ”a magnificent Christmas present.”

And only six months after the Roswell Incident. For the sake of argument, we’ll follow the official story.

Bell Labs announced it six months later. The trade press was ecstatic: Electronics put the three men, who would share the Nobel Prize for physics in 1956, on the cover. (Bardeen became a laureate a second time in 1972 for his work on superconductivity.) The New York Times only gave it a few paragraphs on page 46.

The transistor went on to become one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, ranking up with splitting the atom, manned flight, and the discovery of DNA. One could argue, in fact, that the transistor was the most important breakthrough of the 20th century because subsequent advances in those other fields relied on the computing power made possible through integrated circuits and semiconductors. Information has become a science itself.

Computing, otherwise, would have been a cottage industry. ENIAC, the machine that brought computing to the public consciousness, only debuted 22 months before the transistor breakthrough. It relied on vacuum tubes. If Google built a datacenter based around the same technology behind ENIAC, a single datacenter would need as much power as Manhattan.

Sales and production skyrocketed. In 2003, Gordon Moore estimated that there were about 1018 transistors in the world, or about or about 100 times the number of ants in the word. Last year, the global semiconductor market came to $304 billion and an individual semiconductor device like an Intel Xeon can contain 2.5 billion transistors.

Unintended Consequences

The invention had a number of unanticipated consequences too. California, for instance, became the center of the world. The center of the computing industry, by rights, should be King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The transistor came out of Bell Labs in New Jersey, after all. (So did the silicon solar cell). ENIAC came out of the University of Pennsylvania and early computer powers like Sperry Rand were located nearby. TV manufacturers like Philco clustered there too.

So how come parts of Philadelphia look more like a backdrop for a Frontline documentary on failed urban renewal than downtown Seoul on a Saturday night? Blame Fred Terman. The Stanford Provost wooed Shockley to come to Santa Clara County and others followed in his wake.

Business also became dominated by youth. Besides being a brilliant scientist, Shockley also happened to be a raging egomaniac. Several of the young engineers he hired at Shockley—Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Eugene Kleiner—left to form Fairchild. At the time, it was a radical departure: the traitorous eight were essentially they wouldn’t work for a micromanager. Investors trusted them. Authority by seniority was doomed forever.

You can also see the development of the symbiotic relationship between marketing and computing. An internal Bell Labs committee concluded that “Semiconductor Triode” was probably the best option as a name for the invention, although they thought it could be a bit too long. “Solid Triode” had the advantage of brevity but the committee felt that it connoted “sturdy, massive, rugged or strong.” Small and minute were conveyed by “Iotatron” but some felt it could get confused with a vacuum component. John Pierce came up with the name “transistor” by combining “transconductance” and “varistor.”

A Lasting Impact

But ultimately, the biggest impact has been an unusual combination of rapid innovation and predictability. In electronics, things get cheaper, faster, and smaller simultaneously. You can't say the same thing about designer cupcakes or industrial chemicals: bleach doesn’t get twice as caustic every two years. If the auto industry followed Moore's Law for even a decade or two, a Rolls Royce would cost less than a dollar and be far faster than the models on the road. But it would also be less than a centimeter long.

The dynamic is due to the fact that small chips perform better. A transistor is really just a freeway for electrons. Decreasing its size shortens the commute and hence boosts the speed. Smaller transistors also are cheaper to manufacturer because more can be manufactured in a single wafer of finite size simultaneously. If you can double the number of processors that can be harvested from a wafer, it’s like doubling your factory capacity without paying a dime.

The End Of Moore's Law

Will Moore’s Law come to an end? As it is used now, yes. Transistor shrinkage will hit physical limits: you can split atoms in ordinary manufacturing. Intel scientists have predicted transistor shrinkage might top out around 2020. Scientists from Hitachi at the Flash Memory Summit earlier this year noted that there might be only seven or eight turns of the crank left to reduce the size of transistors.

But that won’t be the end of creativity. Three dimensional transistors, which stack circuits vertically, are on the way from Toshiba, Intel, Samsung, Hitachi and others. This will let manufacturers get more powerful chips out of the same wafers. Thinner and wider wafers will further cut costs. Copper wires, which give off tremendous amounts of heat, will get replaced over time by fiber optic links.

Sixty five years from now, you’ll be reading the same article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.