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IN “FROM ONE TRANSISTOR…,” AAAS Science, November 18, 2022, Phil Szuromi writes, “For most of 1947, the count of transistors made was…zero. It is now estimated that at least 3 sextillion transistors have been made and shipped since then.”
Szuromi continues, “The discovery of transistors speaks to the importance of asking fundamental questions and being aware of potential applications that could be hidden in the answers. The development of transistors into modern integrated circuits over the past 75 years was the result of the efforts of huge teams of researchers and engineers. If used wisely by the rest of us, transistors can continue to extend our scientific and technological reach.” This sets the stage for Science’s Special Edition celebrating 75 years of transistors.
Also, The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 2022, published “The Global Might of the Tiny Chip,” by Virginia Heffernan, a review of Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology
Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits about both of these articles, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
Moore’s Law. “On April 19, 1965,” Virginia Heffernan writes, “an article with a title only an engineer could love—“Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits”—appeared in Electronics magazine, a trade journal about the radio industry…. Most notably, he [Gordon Moore] predicted that the number of transistors that an engineer could cram on a chip of silicon would double about every two years.”
Heffernan says, “This projection has been borne out so impressively over the decades that it is now known as Moore’s Law. Sixty years ago, four transistors could fit on a chip. Today some 11.8 billion can.”
Some Missed the Point; Others Got It. Heffernan recounts several great stories about the growth of transistors: One was “the French president Charles de Gaulle sniffing at a transistor radio — a gift from Hayato Ikeda, the prime minister of Japan, in 1962. De Gaulle apparently found the radio distasteful, a tacky gizmo for the petite bourgeoisie.”
“Only much later, in the Netherlands,” Heffernan says, “did Europe make its own breakthrough in chip engineering, with the invention of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, a heart-stoppingly precise technology that continued to shrink transistors when the progress of miniaturization temporarily stalled. According to Miller, one Dutch company now commands 100 percent of the EUV market, without which cutting-edge chips can’t be built.”
Heffernan also shares, “One excellent d’oh story Miller tells is about when Intel, which had produced chips for Apple computers for years, opted not to make chips for the iPhone. ‘I couldn’t see it,’ Paul Otellini, Intel’s C.E.O. at the time, later explained.)”
Who Makes Chips? About China, Heffernan writes, “With massive government assistance, the country now produces 15 percent of the world’s silicon chips, according to Miller’s statistics, a relatively meager piece of the pie, as China clearly cannot rely on the private capital that has poured into the semiconductor sector in the rest of East Asia. The beneficiaries of this largess include Japan (which makes 17 percent of the world’s chips by Miller’s count) and Taiwan (a whopping 41 percent).”
Consider: Chris Miller’s accounting implies that almost three-quarters of the world’s chips come from these three countries. China is hardly an allay and, what’s worse, it covets Taiwan.
Heffernan writes, “As ‘Chip War’ makes clear, the clash of resounding arms between autocracy and democracy is powered by silicon chips. In this clash, Taiwan is currently the unlikely epicenter of technology, global economics and China’s high-stakes rivalry with the West.”
It’s a far cry from scientists probing basic physics of an element. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll turn to AAAS Science’s look back to the origins of transistor technology as well as its future directions. Alas, there’s a lamentable human aspect as well. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022