Happy 25th Birthday, TRANSISTOR! (Jun. 1973)

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By Audrey Anders

Though I am aware that your publication is slanted toward those more conversant with such terms as “Sensitivity ± 60 dB re 1 mW/10 microbars," I still feel that it is neither sterile nor purely pedantic. Having heart, you have not relegated us, the nontechnics, to merely the Sony ads or cartoons by Cork. For instance, in Leonard Feldman's article on buying watts, I might become irretrievably lost in his charts and graphs, but I am certainly appreciative of attenuator switches, and personally I think program indicator lights would add to the decor, if not the performance of amplifiers.

I, the quintessence of the non-technical layman, have lived with transistors for a number of years now, since their very inception and birth some twenty-five years ago. Being the wife of an electrical engineer associated with its parent company, Bell Telephone Laboratories, I had heard its virtues extolled at cocktail parties, in taxicabs and across various dinner tables around the world. During these soporific dialogues I had generally amused myself by planning the next day's menu, wondering if I had put the cat out, or by simply falling asleep.

Though I had long been aware of the transistor, I had little interest in it, and certainly no intrinsic care for it, until my high school son, in a term paper, lifted it out of its sea of electronic anonymity and gave it life. I remember coming across this paper on his desk.

"Transistors," said the title page, "by Bob Anders--Period Three." An innate maternal interest, rather than a propensity for transistors, caused me to flip the title page and proceed to the introduction.

"To my knowledge," said my son, "the transistor is known to the average person only as a little gadget that goes in pocket radios and other assorted electronic devices." "How true," I agreed.

"It is unfortunate that this ignorance exists," he continues, "but there are valid reasons behind it. The transistor has an unpretentious appearance. It is small, usually measuring no more than a fraction of a square inch. The actual functioning part of the transistor, minus the casing, sometimes approaches microscopic dimensions." I had heard that it was tiny.

"Perhaps the major reason for this lack of understanding of the transistor," he said, "is that it has no attention getting devices. It doesn't generate light like Edison's lamp; it doesn't ring like Bell's telephone; it doesn't go `bang' like a Chinese firecracker." "How interesting," I thought.

"The transistor," he explained, "is a little creature whose habitat is usually inside some sort of box, hidden away from the view of the vast multitude.

There he is forced to live lonely and unknown amidst forests of capacitors and rivers of tin." "How very sad," I mused.

"Usually the only one who ever talks to him is an upset technician or a local transformer that merely hums. After years of such isolated existence, it is surprising that the transistor does not simply give a little `FSST' and die, an unsung hero. Instead, he seems never to weary of his task, and lives on and on." I was beginning not only to know the transistor, but to have care and compassion for it.

"But his story is not completely tragic," continued my son. "While the transistor is never seen nor heard, he has the uncanny ability to make other things so that they can be seen and heard." "Magnanimous indeed," I noted.

"By himself," he said, "the transistor is a nobody, a mere clustering of expensive molecules occupying space, but put him with a bunch of other nobodys like resistors and he becomes a real somebody, one of the greatest somebodys of our time!" How wonderful! "Ever since 1948, when the first tiny transistor was born, men have been using the characteristics of this little guy to make such things as computers, radars, micro-mini radios and all sorts of electronic miracles. Each day, millions of tiny transistors are at work on telephone conversations all over the country." "The transistor becomes even greater," he extolled, "when you find that he has fathered many new and great inventions. The whole space program could not have come about had it not been for transistors. The transistor may be just a little nobody, but his significance will brighten our way of life for years to come." By not the transistor was becoming a friend. He not only made my pocket radio smaller, my stereo more efficient, but I even felt his presence in my telephone conversations.

Bob went on to explain some of the basic transistor functions, sometimes approaching pedantry, but not so much that he lost sight of me, the layman.

"It is not," he said, "that these functions could not be accomplished before the coming of the transistor; they could, but only through the use of bulky devices called vacuum tubes.

Unfortunately, these tubes were limited by many physical properties. They were subject to heat, cold, impact forces, vibration, space limitations and amount of usage. They required separate circuitry to supply their cathodes with enough energy to cause the release of electrons. These cathodes required warm-up time. The transistor, however, surmounts these handicaps.

He has no cathodes to warm up. He needs little external energy to operate and operates at low voltages in most circuits. The transistor gives off very little heat; he is small and can be placed in much smaller places than could the vacuum tube. He is such a speedy little fellow, that he is operating the instant a voltage is applied and the circuit closed." Bob went on to explain and draw pictures of such things as amplification, modulation, demodulation, oscillation and various shaping of waveforms.

Under the heading of "Modulation and Demodulation," he explained: "In this function the transistor acts as an exciter. Much as a ferocious dragon excites a fair maiden, so does a transistor excite an electrical current." Though I was no longer a fair maiden and had never suffered encounters with fiery dragons, this had meaning for me. It even had heart and soul.

On the final page of his essay, Bob stated: "From here on in transistor characteristics become specialized and very complicated, involving much math.

You will encounter such monsters as silicon controlled rectifiers and field effect transistors." I scare easily where technological terms are concerned, and I could see that anything deeper, even with Bob's supportive analogies, would likely take me in over my head. Still, he had given me a basic understanding of the transistor, and for those interested in continuing he made reference to the books in his bibliography.

Bob is now finishing his sophomore year in college, is headed toward a scientific career and is doubtless immersed in things murkier than silicon controlled rectifiers or field effect transistors. It is my fervent hope, though, that he will continue to find feeling among the charts and graphs, and warmth even in cold, inflexible fact. Thus he will help to bridge that eternal ocean which seems to forever flow between men of science and those of us who tend to conceptualize a valence bond as something that goes over draperies, and impure germanium as an ill-formed flower.

Since I am constantly exposed to trade journals and electronic magazines, I have known since the first incipient days of the new year that this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the transistor. I might once have noted this as simply one more banality from another culture; but due to that high school term paper I am now quite conscious of that little nobody hidden away in my household electronics, and I am appreciative of those who gave him birth. It is even with a certain empathy that I can now say, "Happy twenty-fifth birthday, transistor, and best wishes."

(Audio magazine, Jun. 1973)

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