Two Wonderful Inventions that Totally Changed the World
The Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal of October 19-20 recently had a nice story about two inventions that in their words, “Remade the World.”
The steam engine certainly is known to all of us who studied in elementary and higher school back in the fifties and sixties. James Watt and the 1760’s-70’s development of the steam engine led to industrialization in Great Britain and the rest of the world. Coupling the steam engine to powerful railroad engines resulted in blanketing the known world at the time, powering the movement of people, goods and services, and rapid development and economic development.
The second major development mentioned in this article includes “chips,” or the modern term for semiconductor devices made from small chips of silicon. Of course these “chips” are the result of lengthy series of extremely high precision manufacturing steps, often done at temperatures of at least 1,000 Centigrade (over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) and in the most controlled environment in terms of impurities and gas flow. Personally, I was fortunate to graduate from college and enter the nascent semiconductor industry in 1964, which now sounds like a prehistoric era. Vacuum tubes still were a main “active element” in terms of early computers, and the standard amplifying component in terms of radio equipment back in the day.
This new and dynamic business was my work home for 38 years, and during this period I was witness to the meteoric increase in the number of actual “things” on a slab of silicon, from the low hundreds to low thousands to many thousands - then to millions; in fact 256 million on a memory chip when I retired! The number now is even higher, eight gigabits, or 8,000 million “bits” on the currently largest memory IC, but that monster actually uses two 4,000-million bit chips, so the largest single chip I could find was 4 Gigabits.
The “slabs” of silicon, usually called “wafers” in the industry, increased in size from under one inch in diameter up to one inch, then two inches, then three inches, and during my tenure, standardized at approximately twelve inches; a real hunka-hunka platter! That was over fifteen years ago, and current platter-sizes of very pure and high quality silicon are processed at the mind-boggling size of eighteen inches, nearly a foot and a half in diameter. Of course the entire processing industry must retool all the high-temp furnaces and automatic photolithography stepping cameras and etching systems to handle these huge items. Ironically, the industry upgrades in physical diameter of the silicon wafers occur at the same time as the microscopic individual dimensions on every single individual device pattern shrink, down to the current seven nanometers in production. Seven nanometers is just over 25 millionths of one inch! In other words, if you lined up this dimension in a single inch, you could get 40 thousand of them “back to back.” Hmmm.
Piles of these semiconductor chips, both memory circuits and “smart” microprocessors as well as all other variations, would not be worth a hill of beans unless they were combined into electronic circuits that “do things” that are useful to humans in one way or another. The “do things” industry has proliferated into every possible gadget imaginable. The first major computer, the Eniac, was based on separate individual transistors before Integrated Circuits (ICs) became dominant. Eniac included five million individual transistors, soldered together on circuit boards. If every single computer on Earth had stopped working in 1969, mankind would not have noticed a huge difference. But today, civilization would collapse immediately without semiconductors, and especially computers. Nineteen sixty-nine was a key date since the first microprocessor of any sort was developed. The inexorable progress of silicon technology started and never has stopped. A unit of “Computer Capability” that would have cost $1000 around 1960 costs much less than a single cent today!
The Internet is considered by many the most important invention in human history, and this would not be possible were it not for semiconductors, and the “chip revolution.” Along with cheap energy that came from the steam engine, cheap information now is gushing from the semiconductor/chip based Internet.
Of course we now debate the costs of false information along with the ability of mankind to make substantial progress. Like the famous statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it’s up to us.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, a lady asked Dr. Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”
If US and world citizens dwell on endless conspiracy theories and absorb their news from single, often very narrowly slanted positions and biases, then we are in for a lot of problems. Hopefully, the basic decency, fairness, and literacy of Americans will prevail. Believe it or not, there are hard-core folks who do not believe mankind has landed on the moon. There are “Deep State” conspiracy theorists who believe similarly nonsense news they gather in dark corners of the Internet.
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