Electronics industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The electronics industry, from its start in telephones, to the development of the transistor, the microchip, and the microcontrollers embedded in automobiles, appliances, and power tools, has had a profound influence on telecommunications, entertainment, and the products people use everyday.

Modern electronics began with Alexander Bell, Alexander GrahamGraham Bell’s Telephonestelephone, which could transmit the human voice across wires. The telegraph required mastery of an arcane code, but anyone who could speak could use the telephone, creating an enormous market. For a person to make a telephone call, a circuit had to be created to the recipient’s telephone. At first, circuits were created by hand, but as telephone networks grew, the Bell System developed direct-dialing systems.Electronics industry

The second great driver of electronics development was Radioradio. When Guglielmo Marconi, GuglielmoMarconi first demonstrated that radio waves could carry a meaningful signal, he was thinking in terms of a wireless telegraph. Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, Reginald AubreyFessenden imagined creating a carrier wave and modulating it to bear a complex audio signal. To accomplish that end, he designed an alternator that would produce high-frequency radio waves onto which information could be imposed.

Decoding the signal used two types of devices: the crystal detector, a primitive semiconductor that was often used by hobbyists, and the vacuum tube, a modified lightbulb originally developed by Thomas Alva Edison in 1882. In 1912 Lee De Forest, LeeDe Forest added a third element, the grid, between the cathode and the plate of the vacuum tube, and demonstrated its ability to amplify a faint signal.

During World War I, the United States government seized all the American Marconi Company’s radio patents and stations, on the grounds of national security. After the war ended, several leading industries formed a new company to control that vital patent pool. The Radio Corporation of AmericaRadio Corporation of America (RCA), with its visionary general manager David Sarnoff, DavidSarnoff, became the driving force of the electronics industry throughout the 1920’s. Sarnoff realized the potential of radio as entertainment, like a phonograph with an infinite number of records.

Even as radio was taking American society by storm, Sarnoff was looking toward the possibility of transmitting images by radio waves. By 1928, primitive mechanical television systems had been demonstrated in the United States and abroad. Sarnoff knew such systems were a technological dead end and backed the all-electronic system of fellow Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin. At the same time, Mormon schoolboy Philo T. Farnsworth, Philo T.Farnsworth independently conceived the idea of electronic television while working the fields. When Farnsworth refused to sell out to RCA. Sarnoff brought all the corporation’s legal leverage to bear against this maverick, delaying television’s commercial emergence until after World War II.

Dreaming in Digital

Although De Forest had thought of his triode primarily as an amplifier, it was also a fast-acting electronic switch, capable of turning a current on and off hundreds of times a second. Properly wired together, vacuum tubes could perform calculations far more rapidly than any electromechanical system. However, vacuum tubes were fragile, and in computer operations, their usefulness was limited by their demand for power.

That solution was the Transistortransistor, invented in 1947 by John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter H. Brattain at Bell Laboratories, the research arm of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). However, this discovery introduced its own problem, the tyranny of numbers: Thousands of tiny transistors had to be assembled into each circuit. Two men working independently, Robert Norton Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor and Jack St. Clair Kilby of Texas Instruments, realized that the solution lay in manufacturing all the components of a circuit on a single piece of silicon. The integrated circuit, or Microchipmicrochip, made possible a range of consumer products, from digital watches to pocket calculators.

Microprocessors

When Marcian Edward “Ted” Hoff, Jr., of Intel put all the circuits of a computer’s central processing unit on a single chip and created the Microprocessormicroprocessor, he opened the door to the microcomputer industry. The first company to recognize the enormous consumer market for microcomputers was Apple Computer, but once Steve Jobs proved that a computer could be an appliance, microcomputers for consumer and business use became a large portion of the electronics industry. At the same time, old standbys such as radio and television benefited from the microchip revolution, becoming smaller and more reliable. Vacuum tubes vanished from everything but a few specialized applications such as the magnetron of a microwave oven. By the twenty-first century, even the cathode ray tubes of televisions and computer monitors gave way to flat-panel liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and plasma displays.

The microprocessor also made possible the embedded runtime controller, a small, cheap computer that could automate various aspects of the operation of ordinary devices such as automobile engines and home appliances. A Microcontrollermicrocontroller could adjust the operation of an engine or transmission far more rapidly and precisely than the gears and cams of older automobiles. On such devices as washing machines, it was often cheaper for the designers to buy bulk lots of a standard microcontroller and hire a programmer than to design an electromechanical control.

By the end of the twentieth century, the center of gravity of the electronics industry had shifted heavily toward the West Coast, particularly to the area south of San Francisco commonly known as Silicon Valley. Vast fortunes were made in the electronics industry, although it was hit hard by the burst of the dot-com bubble at the end of 2001.

Further Reading
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. Inventing the Electronic Century: The Epic Story of the Consumer Electronics and Computer Industries. New York: Free Press, 2001. A general history of electronics and its impact on consumer products.
  • Corbin, Alfred. The Third Element: A Brief History of Electronics. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2006. Covers the industry from its beginnings in radio through the computer age. Looks at applications in music, timekeeping, medicine, and navigation.
  • De Forest, Lee. Father of Radio: The Autobiography of Lee De Forest. Chicago: Wilcox and Follett, 1950. Primary source of the early days of radio.
  • Riordan, Michael, and Lillian Hoddeson. Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Looks specifically at the use of the transistor and computer technology in various applications.
  • Seitz, Frederick, and Norman G. Einspruch. Electronic Genie: The Tangled History of Silicon. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Focuses on semiconductor electronics, although it contains some discussion of the vacuum tube age that preceded it.

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