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The Transistor

It's been over 50 years since the transistor was invented and we rely on it for more of today's technology than you might expect. You could say that the transistor made the wonders of the twentieth century possible. Without it, computers would never have made it into people's homes,handheld computers would be the stuff of science fiction, and we wouldn't have such things as cell phones or satellites. More importantly; however, we wouldn't have portable radios which are the least expensive and most accessible form of technology today.

Vacuum tubes made it possible to amplify sounds over greater distances, making cross-continental telephone communications possible. The problem with vacuum tubes, however, was that they were far too fragile, energy inefficient and big for many practical applications. Enter the semiconductor. The invention of the semiconductor made it possible to insert a kind of on/off switch between two semiconductive plates. The combination of two semiconductors with a junction between them is what we call a transistor. A classic use of a transistor is to amplify a weak incoming signal – like from a radio station. When an electrical charge or signal is applied to the junction (or base) of a transistor it allows much more power to flow across the other two semiconductors. The gate is opened and closed very fast, sometimes millions of times a second or more. The number of times it opens and closes mimics the varying strength of the incoming weak signal. The inventors of the transistor, William Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen called it a "Three Electrode Circuit Element Utilizing Semiconductive Materials" on their patent. (Actually, the story behind the transistor patent was kind of messy).

Their successful patent application eventually earned the three inventors the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics. Just two years before they were awarded the Nobel, their invention had been used in the first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, designed and built in a collaborative effort by Texas Instruments and a company called IDEA.

The arrival of the transistor radio may have saved radio from a quick and sudden demise. Though many Americans relied on radio for news and entertainment during World War II, by the early 1950s many Americans had already tuned in to television. The invention of the transistor and its usefulness in small, more portable radios for the car or the pocket, made the radio a reliable, accessible and indispensable source of information. During the beginning of the Cold War, with constant threats from abroad, it only fit that the transistor radio, an affordable, small and practical device, should be the technology of choice for a weary public.

Radio continues to serve this function even through the computer age. The radio is capable of reaching people in parts of the country where cable television and Internet access are not as affordable or convenient as a simple reliable radio. Radio keeps people informed, entertained, and in touch. Just how effectively the next generation of digital radios will maintain this tradition is something we'll have to experience together in the near future.

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