A transistor is a semiconductor device that uses a small amount of voltage or electrical current to control a larger change in voltage or current. Because of its fast response and accuracy, it may be used in a wide variety of applications, including amplification, switching, voltage stabilization, signal modulation, and as an oscillator. The transistor is the fundamental building block of both digital and analog circuits—the circuitry that governs the operation of computers, cellular phones, and all other modern electronics. Transistors may be packaged individually or as part of an integrated circuit chip, which may hold thousands of transistors in a very small area.
Modern transistors are divided into two main categories: bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) and field effect transistors (FETs). Application of current in BJTs and voltage in FETs between the input and common terminals increases the conductivity between the common and output terminals, thereby controlling current flow between them.
The term "Transistor" originally referred to the point contact type, but these only saw very limited commercial application, being replaced by the much more practical bipolar junction types in the early 1950s. Ironically both the term "Transistor" itself and the schematic symbol most widely used for it today are the ones that specifically referred to these long-obsolete devices; attempts at introducing more accurate versions have come to nothing.
In analog circuits, transistors are used in amplifiers, (direct current amplifiers, audio amplifiers, radio frequency amplifiers), and linear regulated power supplies. Transistors are also used in digital circuits where they function as electronic switches, but rarely as discrete devices, almost always being incorporated in Monolithic Integrated Circuits. Digital circuits include logic gates, random access memory (RAM), microprocessors, and digital signal processors (DSPs).
The first three patents for the field-effect transistor principle were registered in Germany in 1928 by physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, but Lilienfeld published no research articles about his devices, and they were ignored by industry. In 1934 German physicist Dr. Oskar Heil patented another field-effect transistor. There is no direct evidence that these devices were built, but later work in the 1990s show that one of Lilienfeld's designs worked as described and gave substantial gain. Legal papers from the Bell Labs patent show that Shockley and Pearson had built operational versions from Lilienfeld's patents, yet they never referenced this work in any of their later research papers or historical articles.
On December 16, 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain succeeded in building the first practical point-contact transistor at Bell Labs. This work followed from their war-time efforts to produce extremely pure germanium "crystal" mixer diodes, used in radar units as a frequency mixer element in microwave radar receivers. Early tube-based technology did not switch fast enough for this role, leading the Bell team to use solid state diodes instead. With this knowledge in hand they turned to the design of a triode, but found this was not at all easy. Bardeen eventually developed a new branch of surface physics to account for the "odd" behavior they saw, and Bardeen and Brattain eventually succeeded in building a working device.
Bell Telephone Laboratories needed a generic name for the new invention: "Semiconductor Triode," "Solid Triode," "Surface States Triode," "Crystal Triode" and "Iotatron" were all considered, but "transistor," coined by John R. Pierce, won an internal ballot. The rationale for the name is described in the following extract from the company's Technical Memorandum calling for votes:
Transistor. This is an abbreviated combination of the words "transconductance" or "transfer," and "varistor." The device logically belongs in the varistor family, and has the transconductance or transfer impedance of a device having gain, so that this combination is descriptive.
Bell Telephone Laboratories—Technical Memorandum (May 28, 1948)
Pierce recalled the naming somewhat differently:
The way I provided the name, was to think of what the device did. And at that time, it was supposed to be the dual of the vacuum tube. The vacuum tube had transconductance, so the transistor would have 'transresistance.' And the name should fit in with the names of other devices, such as varistor and thermistor. And… I suggested the name 'transistor.'
John R. Pierce, interviewed for PBS show "Transistorized!"
Bell immediately put the point-contact transistor into limited production at Western Electric in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Prototypes of all-transistor AM radio receivers were demonstrated, but were really only laboratory curiousities. However, in 1950 Shockley developed a radically different type of solid-state amplifier which became known as the Bipolar Junction "transistor." Although it works on a completely different principle to the point-contact "transistor", this is the device which is most commonly referred to as a "transistor" today. These were also licensed to a number of other electronics companies, including Texas Instruments, who produced a limited run of transistor radios as a sales tool. Early transistors were chemically "unstable" and only suitable for low-power, low-frequency applications, but as transistor design developed, these problems were slowly overcome.
Although often incorrectly atributed to Sony, the world's first commercial transistor radio was the Regency TR-1, made by the Regency Division of I.D.E.A. (Industrial Development Engineering Associates) of Indianapolis, Indiana and announced on October 18, 1954. It was put on sale in November 1954 for $49.95 (the equivalent of $361 in year-2005 dollars) and sold about 150,000 units. It used four NPN transistors and was powered by a 22.5 Volt battery.
Akio Morita, co-founder of the Japanese firm Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, was visiting the USA when Bell Labs announced the availability of manufacturing licenses, including detailed instructions on on how to manufacture junction transistors. Morita obtained special permission from the Japanese Ministry of Finance to pay the $50,000 license fee, and in 1955 the company introduced their own "pocket" radio under the brand name Sony. (The term "pocket" was a matter of some interpretation, as Sony notoriously had special shirts made with oversized pockets for their salesmen). This product was soon followed by more ambitious designs, but it is generally regarded as marking the commencement of Sony's growth into an manufacturing superpower.
Over the next two decades, transistors gradually replaced the earlier vacuum tubes in most applications and later made possible many new devices such as integrated circuits and personal computers.
Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect." Bardeen would go on to win a second Nobel in physics, one of only two people to receive more than one in the same discipline, for his work on the exploration of superconductivity.
In August 1948 German physicists Herbert F. Mataré (1912– ) and Heinrich Welker (ca. 1912–1981), working at Compagnie des Freins et Signaux Westinghouse in Paris, France applied for a patent on an amplifier based on the minority carrier injection process which they called the "transistron." Since Bell Labs did not make a public announcement of the transistor until June 1948, the transistron was considered to be independently developed. Mataré had first observed transconductance effects during the manufacture of germanium duodiodes for German radar equipment during WWII. Transistrons were commercially manufactured for the French telephone company and military, and in 1953 a solid-state radio receiver with four transistrons was demonstrated at the Düsseldorf Radio Fair.
Transistors are categorized by:
- Semiconductor material: germanium, silicon, gallium arsenide, silicon carbide
- Structure: BJT, JFET, IGFET (MOSFET), IGBT, "other types"
- Polarity: NPN, PNP, N-channel, P-channel
- Maximum power rating: low, medium, high
- Maximum operating frequency: low, medium, high, radio frequency (RF), microwave (The maximum effective frequency of a transistor is denoted by the term , an abbreviation for "frequency of transition." The frequency of transition is the frequency at which the transistor yields unity gain).
- Application: switch, general purpose, audio, high voltage, super-beta, matched pair
- Physical packaging: through hole metal, through hole plastic, surface mount, ball grid array
Thus, a particular transistor may be described as: silicon, surface mount, BJT, NPN, low power, high frequency switch.
Bipolar junction transistor
The bipolar junction transistor (BJT) was the first type of transistor to be mass-produced. Bipolar transistors are so named because they conduct by using both majority and minority carriers. The three terminals of the BJT are named emitter, base and collector. Two p-n junctions exist inside a BJT: the base/emitter junction and base/collector junction. The BJT is commonly described as a current-operated device because the collector/emitter current is controlled by the current flowing between base and emitter terminals. Unlike the FET, the BJT is a low input-impedance device. Because of this exponential relationship the BJT has a higher transconductance than the FET.
Bipolar transistors can be made to conduct by light, since absorption of photons in the base region generates a photocurrent that acts as a base current; the collector current is approximately beta times the photocurrent. Devices designed for this purpose have a transparent window in the package and are called phototransistors.
The field-effect transistor (FET), sometimes called a unipolar transistor, uses either electrons (N-channel FET) or holes (P-channel FET) for conduction. The four terminals of the FET are named source, gate, drain, and body (substrate). On most FETs the body is connected to the source inside the package and this will be assumed for the following description.
A voltage applied between the gate and source (body) controls the current flowing between the drain and source. As the gate/source voltage (Vgs) is increased the drain/source current (Ids) increases parabolically. In FETs the drain/source current flows through a conducting channel near the gate. This channel connects the drain region to the source region. The channel conductivity is varied by the electric field generated by the voltage applied between the gate/source terminals. In this way the current flowing between the drain and source is controlled.
FETs are divided into two families: junction FET (JFET) and insulated gate FET (IGFET). The IGFET is more commonly known as metal–oxide–semiconductor FET (MOSFET), from their original construction as a layer of metal (the gate), a layer of oxide (the insulation), and a layer of semiconductor. Unlike IGFETs, the JFET gate forms a PN diode with the channel which lies between the source and drain. Functionally, this makes the N-channel JFET the solid state equivalent of the vacuum tube triode which, similarly, forms a diode between its grid and cathode. Also, both devices operate in the depletion mode, they both have a high input impedance, and they both conduct current under the control of an input voltage.
MESFETs are JFETs, in which the reverse biased PN junction is replaced by a semiconductor-metal Schottky-junction. These, and the HEMFETs (high electron mobility FETs), in which a two-dimensional electron gas with very high carrier mobility is used for charge transport, are especially suitable for use at very high frequencies (microwave frequencies; several GHz).
Unlike bipolar transistors, FETs do not inherently amplify a photocurrent. Nevertheless, there are ways to use them, especially JFETs, as light-sensitive devices, by exploiting the photocurrents in channel–gate or channel–body junctions.
FETs are further divided into depletion-mode and enhancement-mode types, depending on whether the channel is turned on or off with zero gate-to-source voltage. For enhancement mode, the channel is off at zero bias, and a gate potential can "enhance" the conduction. For depletion mode, the channel is on at zero bias, and a gate potential (of the opposite polarity) can "deplete" the channel, reducing conduction. For either mode, a more positive gate voltage corresponds to a higher current for N-channel devices and a lower current for P-channel devices. Nearly all JFETs are depletion-mode as the diode junctions would forward bias and conduct if they were enhancement mode devices; most IGFETs are enhancement-mode types.
Other transistor types
- Heterojunction Bipolar Transistor (HBT) is an improvement of the bipolar junction transistor (BJT) that can handle signals of very high frequencies up to several hundred GHz. It is common in modern ultrafast circuits, mostly radio-frequency (RF) systems.
- Unijunction transistors can be used as simple pulse generators. They comprise a main body of either P-type or N-type semiconductor with ohmic contacts at each end (terminals Base1 and Base2). A junction with the opposite semiconductor type is formed at a point along the length of the body for the third terminal (Emitter).
- Dual gate FETs have a single channel with two gates in cascode; a configuration that is optimized for high-frequency amplifiers, mixers, and oscillators.
- Transistor arrays are used for general purpose applications, function generation, and low-level, low-noise amplifiers. They include two or more transistors on a common substrate to ensure close parameter matching and thermal tracking, characteristics that are especially important for long tailed pair amplifiers.
- Darlington transistors comprise a medium power BJT connected to a power BJT. This provides a high current gain equal to the product of the current gains of the two transistors. Power diodes are often connected between certain terminals depending on specific use.
- Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor (IGBT transistor) use a medium power IGFET, similarly connected to a power BJT, to give a high input impedance. Power diodes are often connected between certain terminals depending on specific use. IGBTs are particularly suitable for heavy-duty industrial applications.
- Single-electron transistors (SET) consist of a gate island between two tunnelling junctions. The tunnelling current is controlled by a voltage applied to the gate through a capacitor. 
- Nanofluidic Transistor Control the movement of ions through sub-microscopic, water-filled channels. Nanofluidic transistor, the basis of future chemical processors.
- Trigate transistors (Prototype by Intel, also known as three dimensional transistors) use a single gate that is stacked on top of two vertical gates allowing for essentially three times the surface area for electrons to travel.
- Avalanche transistors have the ability to switch very high currents with less than a nanosecond rise and fall times (transition times).
- Ballistic transistor, Electrons bounce their way through maze.
- Spin transistors are magnetically sensitive devices.
- Thin film transistors are used in LCD display.
- Floating gate transistors are used for non-volatile storage.
- Photo transistors react to light
- Inverted-T field effect transistor, part of the device extends vertically from the horizontal plane in an inverted T shape, hence the name.
- Ion sensitive field effect transistors measure ion concentrations in solution.
- FinFET The source/drain region forms fins on the silicon surface.
- FREDFET Fast-Reverse Epitaxal Diode Field-Effect Transistor
- EOSFET Electrolyte-Oxide-Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor (Neurochip)
The first BJTs were made from germanium (Ge), and some high-power types still are. Silicon (Si) types currently predominate but certain advanced microwave and high performance versions now employ the compound semiconductor material gallium arsenide (GaAs) and the semiconductor alloy silicon germanium (SiGe). Single-element semiconductor materials (Ge or Si) are described as "elemental."
Transistors come in many different packages (chip carriers). The two main categories are through-hole (or leaded), and surface-mount, also known as surface mount device (Surface-mount technology, SMD). The "ball grid array" (BGA) is the latest surface mount package (currently only for large transistor arrays). It has solder "balls" on the underside in place of leads. Because they are smaller and have shorter interconnections, SMDs have better high frequency characteristics but lower power rating.
Transistor packages are made of glass, metal, ceramic or plastic. The package often dictates the power rating and frequency characteristics. Power transistors have large packages that can be clamped to heat sinks for enhanced cooling. Additionally, most power transistors have the collector or drain physically connected to the metal can/metal plate. At the other extreme, some surface-mount "microwave" transistors are as small as grains of sand.
Often a given transistor type is available in different packages. Transistor packages are mainly standardized, but the assignment of a transistor's functions to the terminals is not: different transistor types can assign different functions to the package's terminals. Even for the same transistor type the terminal assignment can vary (normally indicated by a suffix letter to the part number, such as BC212L and BC212K).
In the early days of transistor circuit design, the bipolar junction transistor (or BJT) was the most commonly used transistor. Even after MOSFETs became available, the BJT remained the transistor of choice for digital and analog circuits because of their ease of manufacture and speed. However, the MOSFET has several desirable properties for digital circuits, and major advances in digital circuits have pushed MOSFET design to state-of-the-art. MOSFETs are now commonly used for both analog and digital functions.
Transistors are commonly used as electronic switches, for both high-power applications including switched-mode power supplies and low-power applications such as logic gates.
From mobile phones to televisions, vast numbers of products include amplifiers for sound reproduction, radio transmission, and signal processing. The first discrete transistor audio amplifiers barely supplied a few hundred milliwatts, but power and audio fidelity gradually increased as better transistors became available and amplifier architecture evolved.
Transistors are commonly used in modern musical instrument amplifiers, where circuits up to a few hundred watts are common and relatively cheap. Transistors have largely replaced valves in instrument amplifiers. Some musical instrument amplifier manufacturers mix transistors and vacuum tubes in the same circuit, to utilize the inherent benefits of both devices.
The "first generation" of electronic computers used vacuum tubes, which generated large amounts of heat and were bulky, and unreliable. The development of the transistor was key to computer miniaturization and reliability. The "second generation" of computers, through the late 1950s and 1960s, featured boards filled with individual transistors and magnetic memory cores. Subsequently, transistors, other components, and their necessary wiring were integrated into a single, mass-manufactured component: the integrated circuit. Transistors incorporated into integrated circuits have replaced most discrete transistors in modern digital computers.
The transistor is considered by many to be one of the greatest inventions in modern history, ranking in importance with the printing press, car, and telephone. It is the key active component in practically all modern electronics. Its importance in today's society rests on its ability to be mass produced using a highly automated process (fabrication) that achieves vanishingly low per-transistor costs.
Although millions of individual (known as discrete) transistors are still used, the vast majority of transistors are fabricated into integrated circuits (often abbreviated as IC and also called microchips or simply chips) along with diodes, resistors, capacitors and other electronic components to produce complete electronic circuits. A logic gate comprises of about twenty transistors whereas an advanced microprocessor, as of 2006, can use as many as 1.7 billion transistors (MOSFETs) .
The transistor's low cost, flexibility and reliability have made it a universal device for non-mechanical tasks, such as digital computing. Transistorized circuits have replaced electromechanical devices for the control of appliances and machinery as well. It is often less expensive and more effective to use a standard microcontroller and write a computer program to carry out a control function than to design an equivalent mechanical control function.
Because of the low cost of transistors and hence digital computers, there is a trend to digitize information. With digital computers offering the ability to quickly find, sort and process digital information, more and more effort has been put into making information digital. As a result, today, much media data is delivered in digital form, finally being converted and presented in analog form by computers. Areas influenced by the Digital Revolution include television, radio, and newspapers.
Advantages of transistors over vacuum tubes
Before the development of transistors, vacuum tubes (or in the UK thermionic valves or just valves) were the main active components in electronic equipment. The key advantages that have allowed transistors to replace their vacuum tube predecessors in most applications are:
- Smaller size (despite continuing miniaturization of vacuum tubes)
- Highly automated manufacture
- Lower cost (in volume production)
- Lower possible operating voltages (but vacuum tubes can operate at higher voltages)
- No warm-up period (most vacuum tubes need 10 to 60 seconds to function correctly)
- Lower power dissipation (no heater power, very low saturation voltage)
- Higher reliability and greater physical ruggedness (although vacuum tubes are electrically more rugged. Also the vacuum tube is much more resistant to nuclear electromagnetic pulses (NEMP) and electrostatic discharge (ESD))
- Much longer life (vacuum tube cathodes are eventually exhausted and the vacuum can become contaminated)
- Complementary devices available (allowing circuits with complementary-symmetry: vacuum tubes with a polarity equivalent to PNP BJTs or P type FETs are not available)
- Ability to control large currents (power transistors are available to control hundreds of amperes, vacuum tubes to control even one ampere are large and costly)
- Much less microphonic (vibration can modulate vacuum tube characteristics, though this may contribute to the sound of guitar amplifiers)
"Nature abhors a vacuum tube" Myron Glass (see John R. Pierce), Bell Telephone Laboratories, circa 1948.
A wide range of transistors has been available since the 1960s and manufacturers continually introduce improved types. A few examples from the main families are noted below. Unless otherwise stated, all types are made from silicon semiconductor. Complementary pairs are shown as NPN/PNP or N/P channel. Links go to manufacturer datasheets, which are in PDF format. (On some datasheets the accuracy of the stated transistor category is a matter of debate.)
- 2N3904/2N3906, BC182/BC212 and BC546/BC556: Ubiquitous, BJT, general-purpose, low-power, complementary pairs. They have plastic cases and cost roughly ten cents U.S. in small quantities, making them popular with hobbyists.
- AF107: Germanium, 0.5 watt, 250 Mhz PNP BJT.
- BFP183: Low power, 8 GHz microwave NPN BJT.
- LM394: "supermatch pair," with two NPN BJTs on a single substrate.
- 2N2219A/2N2905A: BJT, general purpose, medium power, complementary pair. With metal cases they are rated at about one watt.
- 2N3055/MJ2955: For years, the venerable NPN 2N3055 has been the "standard" power transistor. Its complement, the PNP MJ2955 arrived later. These 1 MHz, 15 A, 60 V, 115 W BJTs are used in audio power amplifiers, power supplies, and control.
- 2SC3281/2SA1302: Made by Toshiba, these BJTs have low-distortion characteristics and are used in high-power audio amplifiers. They have been widely counterfeited.
- BU508: NPN, 1500 V power BJT. Designed for television horizontal deflection, its high voltage capability also makes it suitable for use in ignition systems.
- MJ11012/MJ11015: 30 A, 120 V, 200 W, high power Darlington complementary pair BJTs. Used in audio amplifiers, control, and power switching.
- BSP296/BSP171: IGFET (enhancement mode), medium power, near complementary pair. Used for logic level conversion and driving power transistors in amplifiers.
- IRF3710/IRF5210: IGFET (enhancement mode), 40 A, 100 V, 200 W, near complementary pair. For high-power amplifiers and power switches, especially in automobiles.
- Electronic Components
- Band gap
- Very-large-scale integration
- Transistor count
- Moore's law
- Ralph S. Carson. Principles of Applied Electronics. (New York: McGraw–Hill, 1961).
- The Other Transistor, R. G. Arns. Retrieved June 4, 2008.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Amos, S. W. & M. R. James. Principles of Transistor Circuits. Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999. ISBN 0750644273
- Carson, Ralph S. Principles of Applied Electronics. Bew York: McGraw–Hill 1961.
- Horowitz, Paul & Winfield Hill. The Art of Electronics. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
- Riordan, Michael & Hoddeson, Lillian. Crystal Fire. W.W Norton & Company, Limited. 1998. ISBN 0393318516 The invention of the transistor & the birth of the information age
- Warnes, Lionel. Analogue and Digital Electronics. Macmillan Press Ltd. 1998. ISBN 0333658205
- Robert G. Arns, (October 1998). The other transistor: early history of the metal-oxide semiconducor field-effect transistor.  Engineering Science and Education Journal 7 (5): 233-240 ISSN 0963-7346
- Armand Van Dormael. "The French Transistor" Proceedings of the 2004 IEEE Conference on the History of Electronics, Bletchley Park, June 2004. .
- Herbert F. Mataré, An Inventor of the Transistor has his moment. 24 February 2003 The New York Times. .
- Michael Riordan. How Europe Missed the Transistor.
IEEE Spectrum 42 (11)(November 2005): 52–57 ISSN|0018-9235
- C. D. Renmore. 1980 "Silicon Chips and You." Complete Guide to Semiconductor Devices, 2nd Edition. Wiley-IEEE Press.
All links retrieved May 1, 2023.
- Transistorized. Historical and technical information from the Public Broadcasting Service
- The CK722 Museum. Website devoted to the "classic" hobbyist germanium transistor
- How transistors work
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