A little electronic device that triggered one of the most dramatic technological explosions in history turns 60 on Sunday. The humble transistor and its descendant, the semiconductor chip, which made the digital revolution possible, today touch nearly every facet of our lives.
All around us, billions upon billions of transistors are quietly at work in computers, cellphones, radios, TVs, printers, copiers, CD players, cars -- in anything with electronics in it. Transistors enabled space exploration and the personal computer revolution. (In the words of Bill Gates, "Without the invention of the transistor, I'm quite sure that the PC would not exist as we know it today.") Without transistors there would be no iPod or hand-held cellphone. No Internet. There would be no multibillion-dollar semiconductor industry, no Intel, Nokia, Microsoft or Google. No Silicon Valley.
Today, the most complex silicon chips can carry more than 1 billion transistors each -- and we manufacture billions of new chips each year. It's nearly impossible to comprehend the numbers. Each year we manufacture about 10 million times as many transistors as there are estimated stars in the Milky Way.
There are about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If you do the math, the resulting number is even more difficult to hold in one's mind--and to realize that happens every year, and will probably be rising, the numbers are not only astronomical, they may ultimately become more than astronomical. Perhaps we'll need a new word for really big numbers: cyberical.
Of course, at current production rates, it will take 10,000 years for the number of transisters to equal the number of stars in the visible universe (assuming 100 billion galaxies, each with the same number of stars as the Milky Way). The universe is a big place: there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the seashore. So perhaps we'll beat grains of sand with transisters a bit sooner than we beat the number of stars.