AT&T Was the Original Chipmaker

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On this day in technology and computing history...

Without the transistor, we would still be stuck in an Industrial Age. We'd have no true computers, no worldwide communications network -- none of the technological advancements that have shaped the last 40 years and that have truly transformed human civilization. Thankfully, that breakthrough worked, on Dec. 23, 1947, when the transistor, developed in AT&T's (NYSE: T  ) Bell Labs, was first successfully demonstrated.

Computers of the 1940s were huge, slow, and far out of reach of the average person. ENIAC, one of the most famous pre-transistor computers, had been turned on mere months before the successful Bell Labs demonstration. It weighed more than 30 tons and took up as much space as an average-sized townhouse, and required so much power that its operators joked that the lights of the nearest city flickered when it was turned on -- all despite using a rather paltry 17,500 vacuum tubes. It was clearly never going to be used by the average office, much less find its way to anyone's home. Transistors changed that, but it took a bit of time.

AT&T's first prototype transistor was made from germanium and had gold contact points. By 1954, Texas Instruments (NASDAQ: TXN  ) developed the first silicon-based transistor, which was much easier to manufacture and thus quickly became the standard. The company lucked out by having a former Bell Labs employee named Gordon Teal, who had intimate knowledge of the germanium design, spearhead this effort. In the 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor's (NASDAQ: FCS  ) integrated circuits -- an improvement of the transistor -- helped control the Apollo Guidance Computer for the men who traveled to the moon. In 1971, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) modernized the transistor design on its 4004 microprocessors, creating a new standard for computing that is still in use today.

John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, who spearheaded development of the transistor at Bell Labs, shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956 for their work. It was a well-deserved award for developing what may be the greatest invention of the past 100 years. Transistors, which are today typically far smaller than the eye can see, are now packed by the billions onto today's computer chips and continue to drive the Information Age forward, bit by byte.

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