Tracing the transformation Science

From tubes to transistors

It was only on October 7, 1954, that the first experimental version of the IBM 604, an all-transistor calculator, was built, Image shows IBM 604 Electronic Calculator at National Science Museum in Amsterdam.  

Did you know that the first half of the 20th century was dominated by vacuum tubes? Be it radio, television, telephone networks or computers, vacuum tubes were the basic component for all electronics.

It was only in the 1950s, a few years after the invention of semiconductor devices, that the switch from vacuum tubes to transistors took place. Today, we will look at one of the first devices that made the transformation.

The IBM 604 Electronic Calculating Punch was introduced in 1948. A lot of planning talent was invested in this device and with considerable expectations, the future of IBM hinged around it.

A desk-sized machine that took in punch cards to process problems, the IBM 604 comprised of over 1250 vacuum tubes that enabled it to perform operations. It was no computer, but as a calculator it could process over 100 cards per second, performing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division using binary coded decimal arithmetic. That was still a lot of calculation at a pretty quick pace during those times.

Vacuum tubes played the role of controlling electric current in electronics through a vacuum in a sealed container. Transistors, that were invented in 1947 by William Shockley, could perform the same function of controlling flow of electricity in circuits, thereby switching on and off appropriately. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before engineers employed these to build their logic.

This, however, did not happen immediately. It was only on October 7, 1954, that the first experimental version of the IBM 604 using solid-state devices instead of vacuum tubes were built.

Paved way for commercial calculator from IBM

Over 2000 transistors were employed in this device. As the initial IBM 604 was built such that it could be manufactured and serviced easily, its design allowed for an easy tech swap from tubes to transistors.

The resulting all-transistor calculator was neither faster, nor smaller than the vacuum tube based machine. What it had going for it, however, was the fact that it consumed only 5 per cent of the power when compared with that needed for the older model.

The success was met with enthusiasm and it urged IBM to build the first commercial calculator based on transistor technology. The IBM 608 was the product and it came out to the market in 1958.

Not affordable

Commercial success though, was still a step away. With over 3000 transistors used, and transistors still being expensive, these calculators were not quite affordable.

With time, however, more and more products took to the new technology, prompting the prices of transistors to fall below that of vacuum tubes. And since then, solid-state devices have replaced vacuum tubes, ushering in an era of low-power, smaller and faster computing devices.

Write to the author at ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 12:10:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/from-tubes-to-transistors/article6475567.ece

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