Thursday, December 22, 2022

A gem of an anniversary

This month, IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, of which I am a longtime member) is observing a milestone we should all be honoring: the 75th -- diamond -- anniversary of the transistor. 

Cover art,
December 2022 IEEE Spectrum
Because what would the world be like without this now ubiquitous device? Because what computer, phone, household appliance, entertainment gadget, vehicle, etc. in your life doesn't require oodles of transistors to function -- while doing way more than their pre-transistor precursors (if any such even existed)? 

The rate of improvement in transistors (and so, the increasingly complex integrated circuits made from them) never ceases to amaze. The ever-plummeting cost. The ever-increasing density. The number of transistors in a single microprocessor chip. 

The Intel 4004 microprocessor, introduced in 1971, had about 2300 transistors. Today's Intel i9 processors have more than three billion.

One snapshot of progress

Beyond general admiration for what this industry has accomplished, and the related industries (including, certainly, anything to do with the Internet), I feel a personal affinity. 

  • As a teen in the Sixties, I marveled at the first truly portable personal music device, that wonder of the age: the transistor radio. 
  • In university classes and summer jobs, I studied and experimented with the first, primitive integrated circuits. (Oh, the terror when, on a college summer job, I accidentally fried an op-amp chip costing $50! Much inflation later, op amps cost ... a few pennies each.) 
  • My first job out of university was at Bell Labs, where the transistor was invented. My first assignment there dealt with upgrading telephone switching equipment (specialized, ultra-reliable computers) from magnetic memory to semiconductor (i.e., transistor-based) memory. 
  • In succeeding assignments and at succeeding employers, I moved with industry from mainframes to minis to micros, and to ever more capable microprocessor families.   

Now try to imagine what marvels new versions of the transistor will enable by the device's 100th anniversary. I, for one, can't wait.

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