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
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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