The 1953 Bell Labs film explains how transistors will lead to the production of mobile devices

There are 16 billion of them in the A16 Bionic SoC, and the more you have packed into a chip, the more powerful and energy efficient that chip is. We are talking, of course, about transistors. And these technological marvels are the subject of a 1953 video documentary produced by Bell Labs that we discovered on YouTube. Transistors made seventy years ago look nothing like those used today in modern times.
It is interesting to realize that before the discovery of the transistor, large vacuum tubes were needed to control the flow of current in a device. Today that job belongs to the transistor. Considering the size of the vacuum tubes used in radios and televisions back in the day, one can pretty much be certain that if it weren’t for the invention of the transistor in 1947, there would have been no mobile phone industry.

In 1915 transatlantic calls relied on as many as 500 connected vacuum tubes

Originally, vacuum tubes were used to connect landline calls that traveled coast to coast. In 1915, the use of vacuum tubes helped make the first telephone call from New York to San Francisco a reality. With 500 vacuum tubes connected, telephone calls could be made over the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, we take all of this for granted these days as the little device in our pocket can put us in touch with another person who is thousands of miles away.

Radar and microwave broadcasting stations (used for coast-to-coast telephony and television) all depended on the vacuum tube until the transistor was created. Three men working at Bell Telephone Labs have found a way to amplify an electric current within a solid without having to depend on a vacuum or heating element. And the power needs for a transistor are much less than those required for a vacuum tube. Also, transistors don’t heat up like vacuum tubes do, allowing many of today’s devices to be small enough to fit in our pockets.

In a related statement foreshadowing the modern technological experience, the announcer says, “Because they are so small, transistors have made possible the miniaturization of many types of electronic equipment.” And the film goes on to observe that transistors “can also be used in multi-channel telephony which increases the number of calls that can be carried along telephone lines at the same time.”

The documentary noted how phone calls could be improved thanks to the transistor. Bell Telephone has used technology to help amplify sounds to make the person on the other end of a long distance call sound like they are right next to you. The transistors, placed directly inside telephones, would allow a farmer, who lives in a rural area away from central exchanges, to hear and be heard loud and clear while on a call.

In the 1953 video, there was hope that one day consumers could play music from a device on their wrist

And while everything telephony was still wired, it’s interesting to see that transistors could be used to help route long-distance calls. And looking ahead to today’s smartwatch, the film claims that thanks to those working to improve the transistor and looking for other uses for it, “you may be able to get music with a flick of your wrist from the so-called Dick Tracy Radio.”

The film is also about a portable television that would allow users to take video entertainment anywhere, which we now enjoy streaming movies and television shows on our mobile phones and tablets. And while it used to take an entire room to house the computer equipment needed for math calculations, today many basic calculations can be handled on a phone or even a smartwatch.

Check out this statement from the movie. “Of course, we can’t build a calculating machine as flexible as the human brain, but even a man-made computer designed to do hundreds of brain-like computational jobs might need an Empire State Building to house it and Niagara Falls to power and cool if thermionic valves had been used in its construction.” So yes, the transistor also helps make the desktop PC and laptop possible.

And these days we keep making transistors smaller and smaller so that more of them can fit in a dense place. As long as this keeps happening and Moore’s Law (the observation that the number of transistors inside a chip doubles every two years) stays alive, faster and more powerful phones, tablets and smartwatches can be made.

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