“Unsung Hero”

by Scott Hamilton

By unknown, US government document – http://www.computerhistory.org/semiconductor/timeline/1926-field.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16410577
Julius Edgar Lilenfeld, inventor of the modern transistor.

James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, has statues in eleven cities throughout the United Kingdom. He is honored as a hero for bringing about the first Industrial Revolution. Watt was the first to successfully design a reproducible steam engine. His steam engine was used in factories throughout the world to improve manufacturing. His contribution to society is minor compared to another gentleman who invented an item that is responsible for the third and fourth industrial revolutions.

Julius Edgar Lilienfeld filed a patent application almost 100 years ago for a product that changed the world as we know it. His devise was the first semiconductor design; he termed it a “method and apparatus for controlling electrical current.”

You might be wondering what is so important about Lilienfeld’s invention. Lilienfeld’s patent sucessfully described a field-effect transistor in 1926. Researchers Mohamed M. Atalla and Dawon Kahng of Bell Labs, working from Lilienfeld’s theory, designed the metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) in 1959, which went into mass production in 1960.

en:Julius Lilienfeld and perhaps his US patent attorneys, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What you probably don’t know is nearly all modern electronics are based off of Lilenfeld’s transistor. The technology to produce them has changed significantly over the years and the ability to build them much smaller has increased their usefulness, but without his original idea we would not have computers, cell phones, digital watches, radios, satellites or nearly any other electronic device.

The first computers were built using a much less advanced and more complex technology called the vacuum tube, where sheets of various metals interacting with each other in a vacuum created similar electrical signals to Lilenfeld’s transistor. It was not until manufacturing techniques caught up with the theory in the 1960s that transistors were able to replace vacuum tubes. That brought the size of computers from buildings to rooms.

Today the processor in your cell phone is more than 10,000 times more advanced than the computers in the 1960-1970s that filled entire rooms, in large part due to the MOSFET. Your cell phone contains over 8.5 million MOSFETs. Eniac, the first computer, consisted of merely 17,468 vacuum tubes, equivalent to a MOSFET and filling a thirty by fifty foot room. Without the invention of the MOSFET your cell phone would fill a building the size of nine football stadiums. Lilienfeld is an unsung hero by the fact that there is not a single statue of him or his transistor anywhere in the world.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new. I found it interesting that circuitbasics.com, one of the electronics blogs I follow, posted an article this week on how the transistor works, you can check it out here.

Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org. You can also follow his channel on rumble at https://rumble.com/c/c-1141721.