I remember the arrival of the transistor radio. Suddenly everyone could afford a little box from Japan with a dial and an antenna and listen to their favorite stations. About the same time the solid-state TV was replacing the old tube-type sets, much like flat screens today pushing aside those clunky CRTs.
The transistor was conceived in the 1920s, invented in the 1940s, and mass-produced by the 1960s. The transistor is an electronic component made from semiconducting materials. It gradually replaced the vacuum tube and thus radios and whatnot could be made more portable. Eventually the transistor could be microscopically etched into a circuit board and complex devices like computers could be shrunk to desktop size.
These days we carry our devices in our pockets. A cell phone has billions of transistors in its circuitry. The transistor count used to be a measure of complexity but is mostly irrelevant now. All of today’s modern chips are packed with almost unimaginable numbers of tiny circuit elements. How well your device works with networks and other devices is what matters. A cell phone, even if it happens to have the most sophisticated architecture, is useless by itself.
The most common kind of transistor today is called MOS and that means “metal-oxide semiconductor.” A sandwich made from a layer of pure silicon and a layer of its oxide is the basis of the MOS transistor, hence the name. The computer I’m typing this post on has billions of MOS transistors in its chipsets.
Let’s multiply those billions by the many, many millions of users. Let’s not forget the cell phones, too, and all the devices in our homes, cars, and workplaces. Not to mention all the technology that launches satellites, flies planes, and pilots ships. And all the computers and whatnot needed for banking, trading, manufacturing, health care, law enforcement, and all the rest of the things that make up a society. Plus we have to add all the dead tech—the heaping piles of old Macs and PCs and flip phones and other obsolete stuff.
The MOS transistor is a good candidate for the single most manufactured thing of all time. According the the Computer History Museum blog something like 13 sextillion (1.3 x 1022) MOS transistors have been made!
That’s an absurd number. It looks like this:
Here’s the number of people on earth (7 x 109):
That’s nearly two trillion (2 x 1012) MOS transistors for each of us!
They think there might be a trillion stars (1012) in the Milky Way galaxy and that looks like this:
So that’s 130 billion (1.3 x 1010) MOS transistors for each star!
In a tablespoon of water (15 grams), there are 500 septillion (5 x 1023) H2O molecules. That means they’ll have to share. A few dozen water molecules will have to fight over one measly MOS transistor.
I was staggered by the number of those little bitty things we humans have managed to make in the course of my lifetime. But then I think about the scale of the atom, and realize that even 13 sextillion isn’t that much. If a tablespoon of water can dwarf that number, imagine how many molecules of H2O are in Lake Tahoe, or the Pacific Ocean!
I’m certainly thankful for all those little bits of computer stuff. Our communication technology has enabled us to weather this pandemic storm. We can’t get together, but we can still stay in touch, and that’s made all the difference.