A portable transistor radio. The world's first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1 weighed 12 ounces with dimensions of 3" × 5" × 1"
The basic scientific knowledge necessary to develop a transistor radio started from the time when, on December 14, 1900, German physicist Max Planck explained to the world how an atom’s electrons behaved with a new theory called quantum mechanics. Over the next 20 years a mathematical model was developed for this theory, including an important equation called Schrödinger’s equation. From there, it was these basic principles of science and mathematics directed toward their practical application in electrical devices that led three researchers at Bell Labs on a race. The race was to invent a solid-state device that would replace bulky, unreliable, and energy-consuming vacuum tubes used in consumer electronics (such as radios) at the time. So it was that, on October 16, 1947, physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley, applied the mathematics and science of quantum physics to semiconductors to invent the world’s first transistor. They had created a device that could amplify a weak electronic signal 18 times over a wide range of frequencies. For their efforts they received the Nobel Prize in 1956.
Now that this new device existed, how would it be used? Texas Instruments used special materials processing techniques to make very pure semiconductor material necessary for transistors and started manufacturing them by 1952. Using those transistors, which cost $2.50 each ($2.50 will buy 100 million transistors on an integrated circuit today), engineers at the Regency Division of IDEA (Industrial Development Engineering Associates) of Indianapolis, Indiana, used the engineering design process to design, develop, and fabricate the world's first pocket radio. The electrical engineers at Regency used their industrial experience and the knowledge from their education on physics, mathematics, engineering science and electrical engineering to design a small radio; 100,000 units were manufactured. The connections of science and math to engineering are clear. The understanding of a phenomenon of the natural world, quantum physics, and the mathematical modeling of the phenomenon promoted the insights on the electrical behavior of semiconducting materials. It was the three researchers at Bell Labs who were searching for a solution to the well-defined problem of poor electrical behavior of vacuum tubes that led the team to invent the transistor. It was a very practical device indeed, since materials engineers at Texas Instruments were able to produce transistors in quantity so that another team of electrical engineers at IDEA could design, develop, and manufacture that first pocket radio.
An electric toothbrush and a microwave oven. The electric toothbrush was invented in 1939 but not popularized until the 1990s. The microwave oven was a spin-off of World War II radar technology and was invented in 1946.
How does technology affect you and your everyday life? Technology created by engineers affects everyone in their daily lives, usually in subtle understated ways. Try this exercise to explore the impact of technology with devices such as the electric toothbrush or the microwave, as shown in Figure 2.
- Write down a short list of three or four electronic devices or gadgets that you use everyday.
- Write a short description of how you use them, how they affect your life, and how your life would be affected if they had not yet been invented.
- Take a guess at what kinds of engineers were involved in helping create one of the devices. Select one type of engineer and think about how she/he how might have used math and science in making the device?