- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

With its around-the-clock accessibility, the Internet is a handy research tool for any inquisitive person, student or teacher. Take, for example, the Web site developed as a companion to a Pubic Broadcasting Service program on the history of the transistor.

The one-hour 1999 special traced the invention and impact of a device that paved the way for everything from space flight to MP3s. Unfortunately, other than ordering a VHS copy of the show, anyone interested in the topic probably won't have a chance to see the program, which has long since gone the way of reruns.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, however, any technophile can find a wonderful primer on one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.


Site address: www.pbs.org/transistor

Creator: The joint-effort site comes from a co-production of ScienCentral Inc. and the American Institute of Physics. The production was led by Eliene Augenbraun, Bo Hammer, Carl Flatow and Spencer Weart and was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The teachers manual was supported by the Lucent Foundation.

Creator quotable: “We created this site using transistors to do what nobody ever did before explain how transistors came to be and why they are important,” says Miss Augenbraun, president of ScienCentral Inc.

Word from the Webwise: Without the evolution of the transistor, the computer I am using to view this information and write about it would not exist. The transistor, a device used to amplify and switch electrical signals, was invented in 1947 to replace the bulky vacuum tube by a team of scientists (mostly chemists and physicists) at Bell Laboratories led by the strange, Nobel Prize-winning William Shockley.

Mr. Shockley, who managed to alienate his brilliant underlings almost as quickly as he hired them, not only won the Nobel Prize for his work, but eventually started Silicon Valley. The misunderstood genius ended up in eugenics debates that caused the scientific community to ridicule his theories and virtually ignore his accomplishments.

His story permeates the pages and is condensed, along with the stories of 37 other scientists, in piles of text.

The opening screen depicts a car radio whose band line moves as visitors click over the areas “Electron,” “PN Junction,” “Invention,” “The IC” and “Future.” Each quickly teases with links to mostly text-based pages scattered throughout the site.

Those looking for the primary sections “History,” “Science,” “Interactives,” “Teachers' Features” and “Quick Tour” will find them at the bottom of the opening page. “Quick Tour” provides a great starting point.

In this section, program host Ira Flatow presents an efficient 12-stop history of the transistor, starting with its potential use for helping radar technology and moving to how builder extraordinaire Walter Brattain teamed with John Bardeento to develop the first point-contact transistor, to Mr. Shockley's “sandwich” transistor, to the origins of Sony.

A mixture of illustrations, scanned-in notes from Mr. Brattain and Mr. Shockley, numerous quotes, video clips and plenty of resources (many linked to other Web sites) fill out sections.

Visitors, who may be overwhelmed by the number of links (almost 150), should turn next to the site map, where they immediately can click on highlights of the transistor.

Ease of use: All popular operating systems should be compatible with the site, which offers PDF files and plain-text versions for the least sophisticated users and Quicktime movies and Javascript games for more sophisticated systems.

For optimum viewing, visitors should have at least Netscape 3 or Internet Explorer 3 with Javascript capabilities and Quicktime or Real Player.

Don't miss: I enjoyed reading about Kevin Aylesworth, senior program officer at the National Research Council, who successfully built a working replica of the first transistor using the Bell scientists' original notes.

I also found the Wafer Maker simulation extremely interesting. Through the use of a little Web wizardry, visitors can grow semiconductor crystals right on their computer screens. This fast-paced challenge involves creating N-Type and P-type semiconductors by controlling crystals' growth through speed and temperature parameters. It's not Tetris or Frogger, but it's fascinating nonetheless.

Elements on the horizon: The site, which is nearly 3 years old, is only updated if an error or new information has been reported. So unless multiple breakthroughs develop and the designers feel compelled to revisit the pages, expect this site to be a static but potent reminder of man's fascination with using technology to make his life easier.

Comprehension level: The site should appeal to any amateur scientist in the family, especially high school and college electronics students. Miss Augenbraun says a seventh-grader used Transistorized as part of his statewide science-fair project.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

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