scifri rainbow logo

Science Friday > Archives > 1997 > December > December 12, 1997

Hour One:
50 Years of the Transistor:

The computer you are using to read this sentence contains millions of transistors - but we never think about how they were invented or how they came to be so important to our everyday lives.

Fifty years ago this month, a group of engineers working at Bell Labs invented a device that changed the world. It didn't look like much at the time - just a few pieces of wire and metal, insulators and semiconductors. But today, their invention, the transistor, is inside almost every electronic device made, from the cheapest radio to the most powerful mainframe computer.

Developed by John Bardeen , Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, the device was initally used in hearing aids, radios, and telephone equipment. Today, the transistor is everywhere, forming the foundations of the modern world.

Photo courtesy Lucent Technologies
and Dr. Michael Riordan.
It is the basis of the integrated circuitry of computer chips, and allows the rapid switching of current necessary for digital calculations. It allowed the miniaturization of electronics that brought on the information age (without transistors, the electronics needed to support a cellular telephone would fill a building slightly larger than the Washingon Monument) and banished the vacuum tube from almost all modern electronic equpiment.

In the 1950's, the cost of a single transistor was counted in dollars. Today, computer chips carry millions of transistors, and the effective cost per transistor has sunk to as little as 0.00001 cent! On this hour of Science Friday, we'll track the rise of this tiny device from its beginnings to its ubiquitous nature today, and imagine what would have happened to us without it.

A Timeline of Transistor History
A chapter from Crystal Fire
What is a transistor and how does one work?
Quiz yourself on your transistor knowledge!

RealAudio Icon

Listen to this program in RealAudio!

Michael Riordan
Co-author, "Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age"
Stanford University

Lillian Hoddeson
Co-author, "Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age"
Associate Professor of History
University of Illinois

Wes Phillips
Equipment Reports Editor
Stereophile Magazine
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Books/Articles Discussed:

"Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age" by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hodesson. W.W. Norton, 1997.

Related links:

And a site for younger listeners

A Bio of John Bardeen

The Solid State Century: A Scientific American Special Issue (Oct, 1997)

Texas Instruments

Special thanks to Michael Riordan for assisting us in preparing the material on these pages, and for providing the text, photographs, and very helpful explanations. Thanks also to the Materials Research Society for their assistance.


Talk of the Nation: Science Friday® is a science talk show which can be heard each Friday afternoon, 2-4 pm Eastern Time over public radio. SciFri is hosted by veteran NPR science correspondent Ira Flatow. Have questions, comments, suggestions about the show? Contact us at Send questions, comments, suggestions about the site to .

Science Friday® is produced by ScienceFriday Inc.., and is a registered service mark.

The Science Friday® Web site is a production of ScienCentral, Inc.

Executive web producer: Ira Flatow

Web producer: Charles Bergquist

Copyright© ScienCentral, Inc., 1997, all rights reserved.
ScienceFriday Home