If you have ever found yourself utterly lost, listening to a repairman explain why your laptop won’t boot, or why your TV is misbehaving, or why your internet connection seems to have slowed, do not fret. Just about every other person on the planet has had to confront the same situation, and felt exactly the same way.
Technology surrounds much of our everyday lives, but its minute workings are never altogether clear to most people. Often enough, you have to develop a taste for it, and you can’t do that without spending precious time to acquaint yourself with at least some of the intricacies behind those small tasks we have all learned to take for granted: saving a document, for instance, or sending a text message. Even then, it would be diffficult to formulate reasons for your attachment, because technology is always evolving, and the scale and speed of its transformations can be overwhelming.
The key component in all modern electronics — from the pick-ups in electric guitars to the lights on your car’s dashboard — is a tiny device called a transistor. This device performs a function in electronics akin to that of a faucet: controlling the flow of electricity, and switching or amplifying electronic signals through a pair of terminals to allow precise application.
Scientists working Bell Labs were first to make significant breakthroughs in transistor technology, producing a germanium-based prototype in 1948. But it was not until 1954 that transistors came into mass production, when two American companies, IDEA and Texas Instruments, used germanium-based transistors for their pocket-sized radio, the Regency TR1.[i] Only around 100,000 Regency TR1 radios were ever produced. But this unassuming piece of electronics — which allowed teenagers to listen to Elvis as they walked home from school — sparked a revolution in the electronics industry.[ii] That same year, Texas Instruments announced the commercial availability of low-cost silicon transistors — the basic component in all the computing power we see around us today.
Smaller, faster, more powerful
Engineers and scientists have since found ways to fit more and more transistors onto integrated circuits, paving the way for the development of smaller, faster, more powerful microchips over an astonishingly short period of time. Today, only six decades after the first silicon transistor rolled off the line in Texas Instruments’ fabrication plant in Dallas, cutting edge engineering permits billions of transistors onto a chip no larger than your fingernail. These advances in computer technology have, in turn, allowed innovations across a vast continuum of products and services — from smartphones and coffee machines to digital cameras and cloud-based servers.
Subsequently, the design complexity underlying the tools we use and the services we now enjoy are becoming ever more complex. So much so that even the most intelligent novice is bound feel dwarfed by the magnificent engineering involved in the production of the chips inside something as ubiquitous as an automated teller machine or a disposable mobile phone.
What drives complexity?
The small businessman and the housewife — both of whom understand the value of simplicity — will not miss the irony in the fact that is our own fundamental desire to keep things simple and easy that drives all the technological complexity we see around us today.
It is, after all, simpler for the businessman to use the technologies of the phone service provider, RingCentral, to manage his sundry communications — just as it is more convenient for the housewife to shop online with just her Visa card. And while both may have only a basic — if not vague — idea as to the technology involved in their transactions, the resulting services are simple enough to appreciate without much pondering. That is exactly how it is meant to be.
[i] Burgess, Mark PD. “First Silicon Transistors.” Radiomuseum.org, n.d. Web. 8 Feb 2013. <http://www.radiomuseum.org/forum/first_silicon_transistors.html>
[ii] “A Storm WithoutEnd”. Regencytr1.com. PBS.org., n.d. Web. 7 Feb 2013. <http://www.regencytr1.com/>
Copyright 2013 ZME Science
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