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  The digital age
  By Fritz Burmeister

For our science column I shall address a subject concerning the rapid growth of the electronic industry over the past few decades. And it seems that this growth is picking up speed in a nonlinear fashion as we go along. 

The revolutionizing effect that had a tremendous impact on all facets of the industry was the invention of the transistor. It replaced the vacuum tube, which required space, electrical power for heating and therefore, an adequate amount of ventilation. Although the vacuum tube served us well, it was an inefficient device that did not lend itself well to future growth, new innovations and expansion. For example, the early computer, employing vacuum tubes, was a monster in size, requiring electrical power that could be used to light up a small town. And who doesn’t remember the days of the old radio, which needed several minutes to warm up before it would even say peep? 

The transistor did not only replace the vacuum tube, it also made the old slide rule, called the engineer’s slip stick, obsolete as well. “What is a slide rule?” I was asked by a young engineer who was born on the day I started to work at the Boeing Co. I told him that it was a hand-held calculator, batteries not included, nor needed. Nowadays possession of a modern calculator precludes memorizing the multiplication tables, an essential exercise in math for the pupils of years past. 

No doubt, the transistor, an energy-efficient solid-state device, found in every conceivable piece of electronic equipment, had a major effect on our life style. It also provided the stepping stone for further development of components and devices so small, yet efficient, that defy the imagination of the average person. From transistor to integrated circuits to microprocessors was a small step, but a giant leap for mankind. The ubiquitous computer in the home, business and industry dominates the stage on which our daily lives are acted out. Every electronic item we buy today seems to be computerized. 

The transistor was invented by three scientists in 1947/48 at the Bell Laboratories, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and Bill Shockley. All three received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. Their starting point that led to the invention was advancing developments of semiconductors, for which the groundwork had been laid years earlier by European researchers, most notably the German physicist Walter Schottky (1886-1976). He was known for introducing the “Schottky Diode” and his investigative work in 1939 into the application of semiconductors as rectifiers. This rectifying effect had been discovered by Nobel Prize winner Ferdinand Braun (1850-1918) as early as 1874. The Bell Lab Boys continued research in that direction which led to the development of the transistor. 

So much for the past. But what is the future of the transistor? Has the miniaturization of electronic component parts, which followed its application, reached its limit? Prediction has it that transistors on a chip may become much smaller yet, but logic says that there must be a finite limit, after all, how big or small is an atom? 

With the appearance of the transistor and its offspring we have entered the push-button, digital world, a world in which science fiction has become reality. And research goes on. Already a cell phone is not only a telephone, carried in your shirt pocket, it is a camera, a radio, a TV and with its super memory, a good portion of the telephone book. With the continued trend toward shrinking the size of components it may become a problem for fat finger pushing tiny button.


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