Getting bored with history lessons

Last post’s investigation into the post-Babbage history of computers took us up to around the end of the Second World War, before the computer age could really be said to have kicked off. However, with the coming of Alan Turing the biggest stumbling block for the intellectual development of computing as a science had been overcome, since it now clearly understood what it was and where it was going. From then on, therefore, the history of computing is basically one long series of hardware improvements and business successes, and the only thing of real scholarly interest was Moore’s law. This law is an unofficial, yet surprisingly accurate, model of the exponential growth in the capabilities of computer hardware, stating that every 18 months computing hardware gets either twice as powerful, half the size, or half the price for the same other specifications. This law was based on a 1965 paper by Gordon E Moore, who noted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits had been doubling every two years since their invention 7 years earlier. The modern day figure of an 18-monthly doubling in performance comes from an Intel executive’s estimate based on both the increasing number of transistors and their getting faster & more efficient… but I’m getting sidetracked. The point I meant to make was that there is no point me continuing with a potted history of the last 70 years of computing, so in this post I wish to get on with the business of exactly how (roughly fundamentally speaking) computers work.

A modern computer is, basically, a huge bundle of switches- literally billions of the things. Normal switches are obviously not up to the job, being both too large and requiring an electromechanical rather than purely electrical interface to function, so computer designers have had to come up with electrically-activated switches instead. In Colossus’ day they used vacuum tubes, but these were large and prone to breaking so, in the late 1940s, the transistor was invented. This is a marvellous semiconductor-based device, but to explain how it works I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent.

Semiconductors are materials that do not conduct electricity freely and every which way like a metal, but do not insulate like a wood or plastic either- sometimes they conduct, sometimes they don’t. In modern computing and electronics, silicon is the substance most readily used for this purpose. For use in a transistor, silicon (an element with four electrons in its outer atomic ‘shell’) must be ‘doped’ with other elements, meaning that they are ‘mixed’ into the chemical, crystalline structure of the silicon. Doping with a substance such as boron, with three electrons in its outer shell, creates an area with a ‘missing’ electron, known as a hole. Holes have, effectively, a positive charge compared a ‘normal’ area of silicon (since electrons are negatively charged), so this kind of doping produces what is known as p-type silicon. Similarly, doping with something like phosphorus, with five outer shell electrons, produces an excess of negatively-charged electrons and n-type silicon. Thus electrons, and therefore electricity (made up entirely of the net movement of electrons from one area to another) finds it easy to flow from n- to p-type silicon, but not very well going the other way- it conducts in one direction and insulates in the other, hence a semiconductor. However, it is vital to remember that the p-type silicon is not an insulator and does allow for free passage of electrons, unlike pure, undoped silicon. A transistor generally consists of three layers of silicon sandwiched together, in order NPN or PNP depending on the practicality of the situation, with each layer of the sandwich having a metal contact or ‘leg’ attached to it- the leg in the middle is called the base, and the ones at either side are called the emitter and collector.

Now, when the three layers of silicon are stuck next to one another, some of the free electrons in the n-type layer(s) jump to fill the holes in the adjacent p-type, creating areas of neutral, or zero, charge. These are called ‘depletion zones’ and are good insulators, meaning that there is a high electrical resistance across the transistor and that a current cannot flow between the emitter and collector despite usually having a voltage ‘drop’ between them that is trying to get a current flowing. However, when a voltage is applied across the collector and base a current can flow between these two different types of silicon without a problem, and as such it does. This pulls electrons across the border between layers, and decreases the size of the depletion zones, decreasing the amount of electrical resistance across the transistor and allowing an electrical current to flow between the collector and emitter. In short, one current can be used to ‘turn on’ another.

Transistor radios use this principle to amplify the signal they receive into a loud, clear sound, and if you crack one open you should be able to see some (well, if you know what you’re looking for). However, computer and manufacturing technology has got so advanced over the last 50 years that it is now possible to fit over ten million of these transistor switches onto a silicon chip the size of your thumbnail- and bear in mind that the entire Colossus machine, the machine that cracked the Lorenz cipher, contained only ten thousand or so vacuum tube switches all told. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, and the sheer achievement behind it is worth bearing in mind next time you get shocked over the price of a new computer (unless you’re buying an Apple- that’s just business elitism).

…and dammit, I’ve filled up a whole post again without getting onto what I really wanted to talk about. Ah well, there’s always next time…

(In which I promise to actually get on with talking about computers)


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