It is sixty years since the invention of the transistor, or was on Sunday December 16th, an event that must have happened in a room somewhere off the long, serious marble corridors of Bell Laboratories' famous Murray Hill facility in New Jersey.
In 1947, it inventors, headed by William Shockley, thought they’d invented a great way to make better radios and televisions. Perhaps that explains why, according to Forbes magazine, the New York Times decided to publicise the press conference held six months later to announce the discovery to the world with a special article. You’d have found it if you’d turned to page 46.
If that sounds ridiculous, bear in mind that few saw any major application for the transistor, and it took several years for the design to conquer its first market, that of becoming commonly used in hearing aids. By 1954, the transistor was king of the hearing aid market.
The idea of a personal computer, owned and used by an ordinary mortal, would have made no sense to the Shockley team of 1947 partly because it might have been hard to foresee a use for such a machine, but also because of an order of scale. A single or small number of transistors have a limited set of uses, but put vast numbers to work and you have something that might come do a passable job of passing the Turing test.
Intel’s dual-core Itanium, by no means the latest microprocessor, has almost 2 billion of them. Future designs will have tens of billions and eventually trillions and on and on until the laws of physics limit how much electrical charge can be held in a physical device without leakage or thermal failure.
Will there ever be another press conference of so much significance that gets so little attention? Nowadays, everything gets attention, but the noise level is so high that it’s hard to know what is genuinely significant.
Many discoveries are far more incremental in nature, but you can at least experience some of the shock of the new by delving into the controversial field of quantum computing by reading up on photonic crystals, an attempt to harness the power of entangled photons to do computing work in a not dissimilar way to the charge held by the first transistor.
Quantum computing will be a slower revolution, it ever comes to pass, because if the miniscule dimensions of the elements being worked with, and the fact that nobody really understands whether the principles being worked with – quantum physics - are within the field of physical devices to tap into for real tasks.
I note, however, that this particular advance, however tiny it might be in reality, also happened on today’s equivalent of page 46, by a website visited only interested professionals.