Few people outside of the electronics industry know this but the fact remains – the transistor has transformed the world that we live in and today, in the internet age, it is just as important.
In 1957 three engineers named John Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain, and William Bradford Shockley working for Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA, invented the first transistor. Together, they ushered in the silicon age.
Before the transistor, engineers relied on vacuum tubes, which were enormous, slow to respond and burnt out. The transistor represented a major shift in technology and led to the integrated circuit. The first of these contained just four transistors at 125 microns in size but since those early days, the technology has improved so much that the number of transistors in a product has grown exponentially. Today, transistors are built on processes down to as small as 7nm—or 10 billionths of a metre. 10 million of them fit on a pinhead and the typical smartphone boasts around 85 billion of them.
It is no exaggeration to say the transistor is the foundation of our modern world. It has had an enormous impact in every sphere of our lives, influencing medicine, politics, science, and via the transistor radio, even helped transform popular culture.
The first available product to use a transistor was the hearing aid. Technology advancements during World War II meant that by the late 1940s hearing aids with circuit boards and button-sized batteries were possible, enabling the batteries, amplifier and microphone to combine into one portable unit that could fit in a pocket. But, the move to transistor-based hearing aids meant they were even smaller and needed far less battery power. They could be worn either inside or behind the ear, making them practical. In 1953 over 200,000 transistor hearing aids were sold, eclipsing the sale of vacuum tube hearing aids.
By the 1960s Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel observed in a 1965 magazine article that the number of components that couple be placed on an integrated circuit could double every year, later revising this in 1975 to every two years. This forecast proved accurate and rate held steady until 2012.
No technology has leant as heavily on this astonishing growth in transistor count as the GPU. The first Graphics Processing Unit or GPU in 1999, integrated transform, lighting, triangle setup/clipping, and rendering engines into a single-chip processor and contained 22 million transistors.
Generally, the smaller the transistors, the less power is required, which helps improve power efficiency and as chips shrink in size, it has a positive impact on form factor, usability, power consumption and performance. This is of critical importance for mobile SoCs where power budgets are tiny.
A cutting-edge smartphone containing Imagination’s PowerVR GPU IP today contains around 100 billion transistors; were this made out of individual transistors it would be 60 football pitches in size and cost US$150 billion.
For Imagination Technologies, the on-going development of the transistor has enabled us to innovate, creating low-power, high-efficiency designs to help our customers create ever better SoCs for all parts of the market, from mobile to TV, to IoT, and now for AI.
Architectural innovations are now as important as large transistor counts at increasing performance and maintaining power efficiency. Thanks to its innovative designs, Imagination is well placed to continue to build on the legacy of the amazing breakthrough by Bell Labs 70 years ago.