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The Material That Changed the World
“Silicon is central to enabling things. It's central to giving power and giving a platform for things to happen. It democratizes things that were otherwise held for the very special few scientists and labs.” — Renee James
When we picture computing technology in the ’70s and ’80s, we think of nerdy, ambitious, young visionaries, burning the midnight oil in some suburban garage, striving to revolutionize the world by perfecting the motherboard. And the material that would eventually ignite that revolution? Silicon.
The story of the material that changed the world starts with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). AT&T created an R&D development laboratory in 1925 called the Bell Telephone Laboratories, with a mission to create a national phone system. Ironically, the company’s monopoly was critical to its long-term growth and success, as it allowed them to plan for innovations around communications.
Giant switching centers gave rise to the need for transistors, which in turn gave rise to semiconductors. The key was finding—or creating—the right material for these transistors. Germanium was a hopeful element, but its scarcity and low melting point made it the wrong choice. Morris Tanenbaum then created the first silicon metal transistor, which started a revolution.
But the revolution was slow in getting off the ground. The first silicon transistors took ten years to manufacture and weren’t even integrated circuits. It would take an even bolder step in innovation to get from these first transistors to the cloud computing we enjoy today.
“They weren't like what Intel was making, where there's billions of transistors,” Jon Gertner, journalist and author of the book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of Innovation. “These were like single individual transistors. And it really wasn't until a good number of years after that that we had these breakthroughs with, you know, stuffing thousands and then millions of transistors on a chip.”
Silicon has come a long way since its invention at Bell Labs. To enable the shift from personal computing to the world of cloud computing and smartphones we live in today, processors had to get more powerful, more cost effective, and more pervasive.
Listen to the second episode of Traceroute, a podcast that tells the backstory of the internet and digital infrastructure at large, as told by those who built it and those who documented its history. In this episode, we tell the story of silicon, the material that changed the world.
Published on01 March 2022
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