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Microprocessors are essential to many of the products we use every day such as televisions, cars, radios, home appliances, and, of course, computers. Transistors are the main components of microprocessors.

At their most basic level, transistors may seem simple. But their development actually required many years of painstaking research. Before transistors, computers relied on slow, inefficient vacuum tubes and mechanical switches to process information. In 1958, engineers (one of them Intel co-founder Robert Noyce) managed to put two transistors onto a silicon crystal and create the first integrated circuit, which led to the microprocessor.

What are Transistors?

Transistors are miniature electronic switches. They are the building blocks of the microprocessor which is the brain of the computer.

Similar to a basic light switch, transistors have two operating positions, on and off. This on/off, or binary, functionality of transistors enables the processing of information in a computer.

How a Simple Electric Switch Works

The only information computers understand are electrical signals that are switched on and off. To comprehend transistors, it is necessary to have an understanding of how a switched electronic circuit works. Switched electronic circuits consist of several parts. One is the circuit pathway where the electrical current flows-typically through a wire. Another is the switch, a device that starts and stops the flow of electrical current by either completing or breaking the circuit's pathway. Transistors have no moving parts and are turned on and off by electrical signals. The on/off switching of transistors facilitates the work performed by microprocessors.

How a Transistor Handles Information

A Binary Counter is something that has only two states, like a transistor, and can be referred to as binary. The transistor's "on" state is represented by a 1, and the "off" state is represented by a 0. Specific sequences and patterns of 1's and 0's generated by multiple transistors can represent letters, numbers, colors, and graphics. This is known as binary notation.

Binary Exercise

Spell your name in binary code

Each character of the alphabet has a binary equivalent. On the right is the name JOHN and its equivalent in binary. More complex information can be created such as graphics, audio, and video using the binary, or on/off, action of transistors. Scroll down to the Binary Chart below to see the complete alphabet in binary.

character

binary #

character

binary #

A

0100 0001

N

0100 1110

B

0100 0010

O

0100 1111

C

0100 0011

P

0101 0000

D

0100 0100

Q

0101 0001

E

0100 0101

R

0101 0010

F

0100 0110

S

0101 0011

G

0100 0111

T

0101 0100

H

0100 1000

U

0101 0101

I

0100 1001

V

0101 0110

J

0100 1010

W

0101 0111

K

0100 1011

X

0101 1000

L

0100 1100

Y

0101 1001

M

0100 1101

Z

0101 1010


 

Example

J

0100 1010

A

0100 0001

N

0100 1110

E

0100 0101

T

0101 0100

 

Conductors and Insulators

Many materials, such as most metals, allow electrical current to flow through them. These are known as conductors. Materials that do not allow electrical current to flow through them are called insulators. Pure silicon, the base material of most transistors, is considered a semiconductor because its conductivity can be modulated by the introduction of impurities.

Semiconductors and the Flow of Electricity

Adding certain types of impurities to the silicon in a transistor changes its crystalline structure and enhances its ability to conduct electricity. Silicon containing boron impurities is called p-type silicon-p for positive or lacking electrons. Silicon containing phosphorus impurities is called n-type silicon-n for negative or having a majority of free electrons.

The On/Off States of a Transistor

  1. Transistors consist of three terminals: the source, the gate, and the drain.
  2. In the n-type transistor, both the source and the drain are negatively charged and sit on a positively charged well of p-silicon.
  3. When positive voltage is applied to the gate, electrons in the p-silicon are attracted to the area under the gate, forming an electron channel between the source and the drain.
  4. When positive voltage is applied to the drain, the electrons are pulled from the source to the drain. In this state the transistor is on.
  5. If the voltage at the gate is removed, electrons aren't attracted to the area between the source and drain. The pathway is broken and the transistor is turned off.

How Microprocessors Affect our Lives

The binary function of transistors gives microprocessors the ability to perform many tasks, from simple word processing to video editing. Microprocessors have evolved to a point where transistors can execute hundreds of millions of instructions per second on a single chip.

Automobiles, medical devices, televisions, computers, and even the Space Shuttle use microprocessors. They all rely on the flow of binary information made possible by the transistor.