The greatest invention of all time is tiny but mighty

Humans have made many fantastic discoveries: fire, the wheel, refrigeration, Netflix, etc. But there is one discovery that has been truly revolutionary; without it, the entire world as we know it would not even be possible. That discovery, the greatest of all time I believe, is the tiny but mighty little marvel, the transistor.

Some of my fondest memories are of lying on a towel at either Rockaway Beach or Jones Beach, watching the beautiful blue ocean and the golden tanned girls while listening to a transistor radio tuned to 770AM WABC and “Cousin Brucie” in the sixties. Groups like the Supremes, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones never sounded better than on those tinny little speakers.

Of course, technology always marches on and transistor radios became “boom boxes,” which ruined it for everybody. But personal portable music in any form was still revolutionary at the time, and it was all made possible due to the transistor.

Prior to transistors, there were vacuum tubes that did the same thing, but they were delicate, got hot, and burned out often. It used to be you could actually take the back off your TV, pull out the vacuum tubes, and run down to the drug store where you could test them yourself in a special machine. Imagine that, repairing something rather than throwing it away. What a novel concept!

Transistors, by being so much smaller and more dependable than vacuum tubes, allowed all the technology we are so familiar with today — cell phones, computers, satellites, and so much more — to be possible. We take them for granted because they are invisible but they are working hard for us all the time.

Plus they are stone-axe simple, just a grain of sand (actually silicon) that has been “doped” with some other elements to make that sand into something special, by being able to conduct electricity some of the time, and not conduct it other times. That’s why transistors are called “semiconductors.” Let’s talk about how these mighty little guys work.

Imagine you’re driving down the Northway, past Crossgates Mall, and you get all the way to the end. Now you’re waiting at the light on Western Avenue. So you’re pointing straight, and you can only go left or right.

Well, a transistor has three leads. In our example, where you’re in your car staring at the light is one lead. To the east of the light, going toward Albany, is the second lead, and to the west of the light, going toward Schenectady, is the third lead.

From your perspective, when the light is red, cars can move east and west, but when the light is green, they can’t go anywhere. The transistor functions like a switch, just like the traffic light. This switching action is exactly what a transistor does, over and over again, very speedily, cheaply, and supremely reliably.

By functioning as a simple switch, transistors made cell phones and computers and ventilators and just about everything in our modern digital world possible. Digital means something that is “off” is represented as a zero, and something that is “on” is represented as a one.

All around us — in the air and in the wires and cables — these zeroes and ones fly around making us connected to each other as never before in human history. Without the miniaturization of the now-ubiquitous transistor, none of this would have been possible (for better or worse if you are on social media).

If all transistors did was this switching or on-off function, that would be enough to make them the greatest invention of all time. Keep reading though, because as they say on late night info-mercials: “But wait, there’s more!”

Imagine you’re outside holding your garden hose. If you squeeze the trigger just a little bit, you’ll get a little bit of water flow. If you squeeze the trigger all the way, you’ll get the most water flow. If you modulate the trigger between a little and all the way you’ll get a corresponding amount of water flow.

The point is: A very small movement of your hand controls the flow of a large amount of water. Well, if you put a little bit of electricity on one leg of the transistor, a little bit of it will flow across the other two legs, but if you put a lot of electricity on the one leg, a much larger amount can be controlled on the other two legs.

This ability of a small amount of electrical current controlling a much larger amount is called amplification. It’s what allowed those small speakers in the original transistor radios to make sound that we could hear without those big and bulky vacuum tubes.

This combination of switching and amplifying is what makes the transistor the greatest invention of all time. Nothing else comes close.

For me, every time my car starts right up I think of transistors. It used to be that cars had carburetors with so-called “automatic chokes.” Depending on the outside temperature and when the car had last run, you had to press on the gas pedal one or two times before you tried to start the car.

If you got it wrong, you flooded the engine and then had to sit there and wait. Not a good thing when you had to be to your class or your job right away. EFI, or Electronic Fuel Injection, which enables modern cars to just start right up virtually all the time, is made possible because of transistors. Wow. What a miracle.

Electronics hobbyists like me can still buy single or “discrete” transistors, but it’s much more common nowadays to find transistors packed in tightly on “integrated circuits.” Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, stated many decades ago that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit “chip” would double approximately every 18 months, and by gosh he’s been right even to this day, though someday the laws of physics will finally stop it.

But consider this – the average smartphone contains 460 billion transistors. That is quite something!

In Albany and in Malta, we have “chip fab” plants that make computer chips. The most common kind of transistor they make for these chips is called a MOS-FET, which stands for Metal Oxide Semiconductor – Field Effect Transistor.

In fact, the MOS-FET is the single most produced item in human history, at thirteen sextillion (a sextillion is a 1 followed by 21 zeros) and counting. Holy moly.

Transistors are truly miraculous devices that help our cars start, let us fly to the moon and beyond, and make our lives better in so many ways. I’m just glad I got to be alive during the time of the transistor.

Handsome, strong, and talented boxer Muhammad Ali always said he was “the greatest.” To many, he was, but I’ll vote for the transistor any day.