Lee deforest. He lived from 1873 - 1961. Ever heard of him? Probably not... yet he was the brainchild of arguably the most important invention of the technology revolution. The triode vacuum tube. You see, mr deforest was an audio enthusiast. Aka.. audiophile... Side note, I just don’t like using the word audiophile, I think it sounds creepy, and I don’t like calling myself an audiophile. I prefer the term audio enthusiast. Anyways... back to what I was saying. Mr lee deforest was an audio enthusiast..and was actually one of the first ever audio enthusiasts.
He was trying to find a way to amplify electronic sound for broadcast. The concept of a tube already existed, but not in a way that was useful, as they only had 2 elements, called an anode and a cathode, and electricity would flow between this anode and cathode. It could be used as a volt meter, but there were simpler volt meters available. Lee Deforest figured out that if you put a third element called a grid in between the anode and the cathode, you could control with great fidelity the flow of electricity between the 2 elements. Hence, the triode tube. Lee deforest knew that this concept would work... but he failed at actually making it work. He thought the tube needed some kind of gas for the electricity to be conducted through. He experimented with pretty much every vapour and gas known, but it just never quite worked very well. He patented his useless idea that didn’t work, and that was the end of it, for a while. Then, bell laboratories bought the patent for dirt cheap, and some smarty pants there figured out that that if you don’t fill it with gas, but instead suck everything out of it, even the air, so it’s a vacuum inside, bam.. it works. It actually works really well! And that was great, the triode vacuum tube was utilized in many applications from broadcast to radars. But, haphazardly, the vacuum tube had another function. You see, it would only allow positive electricity to flow through it. When negative electricity tried to go through it, it would simply turn off. This was useful, because it could produce 2 values, on or off, or you could call the 2 values yes or no, or just to make it simple, let’s call them 0 and 1. And then they realized that you could combine multiple vacuum tubes to do very simple calculations. And the more vacuum tubes you could combine, the more complex of calculations this device could perform.
In 1946 the university of pensilvania put together 18,000 vacuum tubes to create the worlds first computer. It weighed 50 tons, and was used by the US army in WW2 to calculate artillery trajectories. Calculations that would take a team of mathematicians all day to figure out, this thing could do in half an hour.
In theory, these vacuum tube computers had limitless computational power, because you can always create one with more vacuum tubes. But, vacuum tubes are expensive, and when there are thousands of them, they’re bulky and suck up a lot of electricity.
Throughout the 1940’s scientists were developing new technology to replace the vacuum tube. Instead of passing the electricity through a vacuum, they were trying to find a suitable material that was a solid state and could do the same thing, and didn’t need a fancy glass tube or anything. It took a long time for them to discover something that worked, and even longer for it to be more economical than a vacuum tube. In 1958, IBM built a computer using these new things that do the same thing as a vacuum tube, except they use solid state materials, and they were were called transistors. This computer had 52,000 transistors, and weighed only 10 tons. IBM sold these computers for $813,000.
In 1958, a major breakthrough came when a couple of wise guys named Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce figured out that you could sandwich a bunch of these transistors together and manufacture it that way. They were gonna call it a chip, but they wanted a name that sounds fancier, so they called it a microchip. Robert Noyce went on to be the founder of a little outfit called Intel Corporation, and in 1971 they released the worlds first microprocessor. It had 2250 transistors, memory and input and output controls... all on one little chip. And ever since then they’ve been making them smaller and smaller with more and more transistors. Today’s microprocessors now contain over 6 million transistors on a single chip, and microprocessors are the key component in every piece of technology we have. I’ll bet you 5 bucks Lee Deforest didn’t see this coming!