The Silicon Age Is Only Sixty Years Old

Is sixty years a long time? I guess, but it's not ancient history. On December 16, 1947 at Bell Laboratories  in New Jersey, the world's first transistor was born. Ever since the people at Bell got over wondering just what they needed those little semiconductor amplifiers for, when they had perfectly good vacuum tubes hanging around to do that sort of work, it's been all Moore's Law all the way, baby. 

Between 1958 and 1959 two men working independently, Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments (nyse: TXN - news - people ) and Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor (nyse: FCS - news - people ), figured out how to combine a sequence of transistors on a single wafer of silicon crystal. Now true miniaturization and mass production would begin to be possible.

Then at the end of the 1960s the microprocessor, the computer on a chip, was invented. It leapt another order-of-magnitude hurdle in the miniaturization and interconnecting of transistors. It was put on the market by Intel (nasdaq: INTC - news - people ) in 1971. That opened the floodgates--more than 20 years after the birth of the transistor. Thanks to the microprocessor, by the mid-1970s the idea of a personal computer, almost undreamt of a few years before, was becoming familiar, even if very few people had one yet.

Today a single advanced microprocessor can contain 1.7 billion transistors, and the transistors can be as small as 200 billionths of a meter. The numbers become dizzying. Gordon Moore, who quantified the effect of all those devices with his Moore's Law, estimates that every year "we make on the order of 1,017 transistors. That's a one followed by 17 zeros. ... We make about one transistor for every ant on earth these days--every year."

Happy Birthday, transistors. Now about that flying car I was promised...

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