Happy Birthday to the transistor

From a four transistor radio to a processor that has 820,000,000 - it's 60 years since the transistor was invented

This Sunday is the 60th birthday of a basic piece of technology we've come to take for granted - the humble transistor. Originally invented by Bell Labs, it wasn't until 1953 that it started to appear in commercial devices. Contrary to our expectations it wasn't a transistor radio that first sported the valve-supplanting technology, but a Sonotone 1010 hearing aid.

The year after the first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, went on sale in the US for $49.99. The radio contained just four transistors. In 1960 the portable TV was introduced by Sony. The 5-inch TV8-301 used 23 silicon and germanium transistors.

Then in 1971 came the invention that changed it all - the PC processor. It was a whole six years after Intel founder Gordon Moore had struck Moore's Law, the statement on technological advancement that still holds today. The assertion was made in a paper Moore published in Electronics Magazine stating the number of transistors on a chip would double about every 2 years.

The age of the PC

The 1971 4004 processor contained just over 2,000 transistors and was used in the first single-chip calculator from Busicom that year. The 1970s is littered with transistor use in 'adding machines' as well as the Altair 8800 -the first microcomputer based on Intel's 8080 chip (4,500 transistors).

Then, of course, there was - and still is - the IBM PC. The 1981 machine had a 8088 chip boasting 29,000 transistors. Intel's next breakthrough came in 1982, with the 16-bit 80286 chip featuring 134,000 transistors. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today's Penryn Core 2 Extreme chips have over 820,000,000 of the tiny switches on the chip which turn on and off a trillion times a second, according to Intel, meaning it can complete a billion calculations in the blink of an eye.

Intel called its latest 45nm chips "the biggest transistor advancement in 40 years" when they were announced earlier in 2007. Due to the poor efficiency of current travelling through the silicon at such a diminutive size, Intel announced it was to replace the material with a Hafnium-based high-k metal gate. The new material means less current leakage.

READ: Intel confirms 45nm, high-K for Penryn

The other interesting aspect of Moore's Law - one that receives considerably less coverage - is that it not only predicts an increase in technological capability, but also a decrease in cost.

The price of a transistor in a Penryn chip is about 1 millionth the average price of a transistor in 1968. If car prices had fallen at the same rate, a new car today would cost half a penny.


Dan (Twitter, Google+) is TechRadar's Former Deputy Editor and is now in charge at our sister site T3.com. Covering all things computing, internet and mobile he's a seasoned regular at major tech shows such as CES, IFA and Mobile World Congress. Dan has also been a tech expert for many outlets including BBC Radio 4, 5Live and the World Service, The Sun and ITV News.