Before transistors, energy-sucking, bulky, and unreliable vacuum tubes were used to complete circuits and switch electricity on or off.
In the late 40’s, a team of electrical engineers and physicists discovered how to make transistors out of treated germanium, ultimately earning them the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956.
And rightfully so: the invention of the transistor marked a huge turning point for mankind. Without the transistor, there would be no computers and thus none of the scientific advances that we have achieved would have occurred as they did.
But what is a transistor? Nowadays a transistor is made up of combined pieces of silicon treated so that they function as semiconductors. Some pieces will be given extra electrons (and be negative) while other pieces will have electrons removed from them (and be positive). The pieces are fitted together, and the places where they connect are called junctions, making them junction transistors.
Because of how the transistor is engineered, it can act as a switch and an amplifier when electrical current is applied to its base (central piece). In this way, transistors act sort of like a faucet for electrical current; they can switch it on, off, or vary how much current is released.
Transistors are therefore very helpful in devices that have volume knobs. They allowed for the first hearing aide to be invented in 1952; people could adjust the amount of current running from a tiny microphone on the outermost side of the device to the tiny speakers on the innermost side of the device so that the volume was high enough for them to hear.
Transistors also played a crucial part in the engineering behind radios; sounds are recorded through microphones and turned into electrical signals. Those signals travel through a circuit and then the transistor amplifies the signal, which translates to a louder sound when the signal reaches the speaker.
Radios were by no means new technology; what was amazingly helpful about transistors was how small they were, and thus how small they allowed already-invented devices to be. Transistors allowed for the first TR-1 pocket radio to be created in 1854. The TR-1 was a revolutionarily small transistor radio that was successfully mass produced. This little pocket radio proved to many industry leaders that it was possible to make a lot of money off this new technology, and quickly companies like Texas Instruments, Emerson, General Electric and Raytheon began mass-producing transistor-based products, initiating the electronics boom.
Eventually engineers realized that transistors could replace the vacuum tubes in computers, which could make them much less bulky considering the first pre-transistor computer ENIAC possessed 17,000 vacuum tubes and weighed 30 tons.
The first silicon transistor also bolstered the electronics boom; they were cheaper and more reliable than germanium transistors were extremely compatible with computers. Their ability to switch between two binary states (current on or current off) is the basic physical form from which the binary language of computers is transmitted.
These transistors are all applied to an integrated circuit (also called a microprocessor or a mircrochip), which is just a piece of semiconductor material loaded up with transistors. Through the use of Boolean algebra, the currents transferred across these transistors can allow computers to make simple decisions. Computers need millions to billions of transistors to complete tasks, so part of the electronics boom has been to make transistors tiny.