Information Age Education Blog

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In Terms of Vacuum Tube Dollars, Likely You Are a Billionaire

Most days I spend quite a bit of time browsing educational and technical websites. Today, this led me to reading about the early history of transistor radios and transistors.

The transistor was invented in 1947. In many electronic circuits such as in a radio, a transistor could be used in place of a vacuum tube (Wikipedia, n.d.a). The transistor is smaller, much more rugged, has a much longer expected life, and uses much less electric power.

It took seven years before the first mass-produced transistorized portable radios became available. That was in 1954, the year I graduated from high school. At that time, I could not afford such a “neat toy”.

Now, I own a variety of devices that each contains more than a billion transistors. I think of this as owning devices that each contain the equivalent of more than a billion dollars (1954 prices) of vacuum tubes. In that sense, I am a billionaire many times over! Likely, you are also this type of billionaire.

Quoting from a 1954 issue of Popular Electronics (Popular Electronics, 1954):

Most of the early project used vacuum tubes; transistors had just become available to hobbyists. The Raytheon CK722 transistor was $3.50 in the December 1954 issue while a 12AX7 dual triode tube was only $0.61…. Transistors soon cost less than a dollar and transistor projects became common in every issue of Popular Electronics. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Adjusted for inflation, the $.61 cost of a vacuum tube in 1954 is roughly $5.50 in 2017 dollars.

As you know, transistors are not manufactured one transistor at a time. Nowadays, they are manufactured as chips, where a single chip may contain billions of transistors. Quoting from the Wikipedia (n.d.b):

The transistor count is the number of transistors on an integrated circuit (IC). Transistor count is the most common measure of IC complexity, although there are caveats. For instance, the majority of transistors are contained in the cache memories in modern microprocessors, which consist mostly of the same memory cell circuits replicated many times. The rate at which transistor counts have increased generally follows Moore's law, which observed that the transistor count doubles approximately every two years. As of 2016, the largest transistor count in a commercially available single-chip processor is over 7.2 billion—the Intel Broadwell-EP Xeon. In other types of ICs, such as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), Intel's (previously Altera) Stratix 10 has the largest transistor count, containing over 30 billion transistors.

Computer on a Chip

The development of a Computer Central Processing Unit (CPU) on a chip was a major breakthrough. Large scale integrated circuits opened the world of computers to hobbyists and then to the mass production of microcomputers. Quoting from The History of the Microprocessor and the Personal Computer (Singer, 9/17/2014):

The established commercial market leaders didn't take personal computing seriously because of limited input-output functionality and software, a dearth of standardization, high user skill requirement, and few envisaged applications. Intel's own engineers had lobbied for the company to pursue a personal computing strategy almost as soon as the 8080 started being implemented in a much wider range of products than originally foreseen. Steve Wozniak would plead with his employer, Hewlett-Packard, to do the same.

Notice Steve Wozniak’s name in the above quote. He and Steve Jobs developed the first Apple microcomputer. Quoting from the Wikipedia (n.d.c):

A number of complete microcomputers were offered even before kits became popular, dating to as far back as 1973. For some time, there was a major market for assembled versions of the Altair 8800, a market that grew significantly through the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. The introduction of three computers aimed at personal users in 1977, the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Commodore PET, significantly changed the market and led to the home computer revolution. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Final Remarks

Today’s children are growing up is a transistorized world where Information and Communication Technology are routine parts of their everyday life. In the year 2015, the worldwide production of transistors exceeded 30 billion for every person on earth (Hutcheson, 4/2/2015).

I find that figure quite mind boggling. Perhaps you have heard the 16th century proverb, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. Well, if transistors had the value of vacuum tube dollars mentioned at the beginning of this IAE Blog, every person on earth could be a multibillionaire! It is clear that this technology has changed the world and the lives of most people.

What You Can Do

You are certainly aware of children and adults of all ages making entertainment uses of “their share” of the world’s production of transistors. Moreover, you are aware of workers in business and industry making use of “their share” of the world’s production of transistors. This has contributes to major changes in the job market.

However, few of our schools and their students are receiving and making effective use of “their share” of this resource (wealth). Most of the world’s schools are archaic in their use of Information and Communications Technology as aids to teaching, learning, and solving the types of problems that students are studying in schools.

My free short book, The Fourth R, provides my recommendations on a major change we should be making in our PreK-12 schools (Moursund, 12/23/2016).

References and Resources

Hutcheson, D. (4/2/2015). Graphic: Transistor production has reached astronomical scale. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved 5//6/2017 from http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/transistor-production-has-reached-astronomical-scales.

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The Fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/289-the-fourth-r/file.html. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/290-the-fourth-r-1/file.html. Access the book online at http://iae-pedia.org/The_Fourth_R.

Popular Electronics (1954). Various issues. Retrieved 5/6/2017 from http://www.smecc.org/popular_electronics.htm.

Singer, G. (9/17/2014). The history of the microprocessor and the personal computer. Retrieved 5/6/2017 from http://www.techspot.com/article/874-history-of-the-personal-computer/.

Wikipedia (n.d.a). History of the transistor. Retrieved 5/6/2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_transistor.

Wikipedia (n.d.b). Transistor count. Retrieved 5/6/2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor_count#Microprocessors.

Wikipedia (n.d.c). List of early microcomputers. Retrieved 5/6/2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_early_microcomputers.

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Monday, 22 May 2017
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