Modern Computers

From UNIVAC to the present, computer evolution has moved very rapidly. The first-generation computers were known for using vacuum tubes in their construction. The generation to follow would use the much smaller and more efficient transistor.

Any modern digital computer is largely a collection of electronic switches. These switches are used to represent and control the routing of data elements called binary digits (or bits). Because of the on or off nature of the binary information and signal routing the computer uses, an efficient electronic switch was required.

The first electronic computers used vacuum tubes as switches, and although the tubes worked, they had many problems. The type of tube used in early computers was called a triode and was invented by Lee De Forest in 1906. It consists of a cathode and a plate, separated by a control grid, suspended in a glass vacuum tube.

The cathode is heated by a red-hot electric filament, which causes it to emit electrons that are attracted to the plate. The control grid in the middle can control this flow of electrons. By making it negative, the electrons are repelled back to the cathode; by making it positive, they are attracted toward the plate.

Thus, by controlling the grid current, you can control the on/off output of the plate. Unfortunately, the tube was inefficient as a switch. It consumed a great deal of electrical power and gave off enormous heat—a significant problem in the earlier systems.

Primarily because of the heat they generated, tubes were notoriously unreliable—in larger systems, one failed every couple of hours or so. The invention of the transistor, or semiconductor, was one of the most important developments leading to the personal computer revolution.

The transistor was first invented in 1947 and announced in 1948 by Bell Laboratory engineers John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Bell associate William Shockley invented the junction transistor a few months later, and all three jointly shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for inventing the transistor.

The transistor, which essentially functions as a solid-state electronic switch, replaced the less-suitable vacuum tube. Because the transistor was so much smaller and consumed significantly less power, a computer system built with transistors was also much smaller, faster, and more efficient than a computer system built with vacuum tubes.

Transistors are made primarily from the elements silicon and germanium, with certain impurities added. Depending on the impurities added—its electron content—the material becomes known as either N-Type (negative) or P-Type (positive). Both types are conductors, allowing electricity to flow in either direction.

However, when the two types are joined, a barrier is formed where they meet that allows current to flow in only one direction when a voltage is present in the right polarity. This is why they are typically called semiconductors. A transistor is made by placing two P-N junctions back to back.

They are made by sandwiching a thin wafer of one type of semiconductor material between two wafers of the other type. If the wafer in between is made from P-type material, the transistor is designated a NPN. If the wafer in between is N-type, the transistor is designated PNP.

In an NPN transistor, the N-type semiconductor material on one side of the wafer is called the emitter and is normally connected to a negative current. The P-type material in the center is called the base, and the N-type material on the other side of the base is called the collector.

An NPN transistor compares to a triode tube such that the emitter is equivalent to the cathode, the base is equivalent to the grid, and the collector is equivalent to the plate. By controlling the current at the base, you can control the flow of current between the emitter and collector.

Compared to the tube, the transistor is much more efficient as a switch and can be miniaturized to microscopic scale. In June 2001, Intel researchers unveiled the world's smallest and fastest silicon transistors, only 20 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in size.

These are expected to appear in PC processors in the year 2007, which will have one billion transistors running at speeds of 20GHz! By comparison, in 2001 the AMD Athlon XP had more than 37.5 million transistors, and the Pentium 4 had more than 42 million transistors.

The conversion from tubes to transistors began the trend toward miniaturization that continues to this day. Today's small laptop (or palmtop) PC systems, which run on batteries, have more computing power than many earlier systems that filled rooms and consumed huge amounts of electrical power.

Although vacuum tubes have been replaced in virtually all consumer applications by transistors and integrated circuits, they remain popular for high-end audio applications because they produce a warmer and richer sound than transistors do.

Because computers are increasingly used for audio processing and playback, Acer's Aopen division has released a motherboard (the AX4B-533 Tube) that uses a dual-triode tube along with a special noise-reduction design to produce excellent music playback.

The third generation of modern computers is known for using integrated circuits instead of individual transistors. In 1959, engineers at Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit (IC), a semiconductor circuit that contains more than one transistor on the same base (or substrate material) and connects the transistors without wires.

The first IC contained only six transistors. By comparison, the Intel Pentium Pro microprocessor used in many of today's high-end systems has more than 5.5 million transistors, and the integral cache built into some of these chips contains as many as an additional 32 million transistors! Today, many ICs have transistor counts in the multimillion range.