Anything that is computerized depends on semiconductors. They come in many forms such as chips (both CPU and memory), transistors, diodes, LED's -- and are made of silicon. A single tiny silicon chip can hold millions of transistors to form inexpensive microprocessors, otherwise known as integrated circuits.
"Semiconductors are to the information age what engines are to the industrial age. Chips are the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, and the fractional horsepower engine rolled up into one." (G. Dan Hutcheson)
Semiconductors have had a huge impact on our society, and are the backbone of the digital age that we have built.
Until the advent and use of semiconductors, the vacuum tube dominated electronics. The vacuum tube was used in radios and audio equipment, and the early computers. Vacuum tubes were still in use until recently in such items as television picture tubes and computer video monitors. Semiconductor technology made transistors possible, which replace the vacuum tube. Compared against the vacuum tube, transistors are smaller, lighter, use less power, require lower voltage, create less heat, and are more rugged and reliable. Innovations in manufacturing semiconductors has created smaller transistors to the point of upwards to 100 million on one chip. In addition, the cost per transistor has gone from $1 per unit in 1968 to about one-thousandth of a cent in the early 90s -- not to mention their performance rates have increased accordingly.
The first transistor was developed at Bell Labs in 1947, with the first single crystal transistor coming in 1952 made from germanium. The first silicon transistor was made in 1954.
Three men were given the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for developing the transistor. William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain shared the award "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect". With the invention of the transistor, the extraordinary usefulness of semiconductors was recognized, and helped spark the information technology revolution.
William Shockley (1910-1989) is said to be "the man who brought silicon to Silicon Valley." He was an American physicist raised in California and graduated from California Institute of Technology, with his Phd from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did much of his pioneering work at Bell Labs, and was the man with the vision (and the head of the division).
John Bardeen (1908-1991) was an American physicist and electrical engineer, who along with winning the Nobel Prize with Shockley and Brattain won a second award in 1972 for the fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory. John was said to be the 'brains' of the group - the theorist.
Walter Brattain (1902-1987) was an American physicist who worked at Bell Labs from 1929 and it was said "he had the hands": he had a good understanding of theory, but his strength was in physically constructing experiment. Brattain's hands built the first transistor.
Today computers are getting faster and faster each year, and semiconductor technology allows for smaller and smaller electronic components. Soon we will reach the electron limit of the atomic structure of silicon. Will there be a change in material? A quantum change in the technology? Thus far, Moore's law has held: "the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years."