Confessions Of A Transistor Hog
By Geoffrey Colvin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Think you've got a pretty strong grip on the progress of the Info Age? Okay, answer this: How many transistors do you own?

I realize you have no idea, but take a guess.

For perspective, remember that the transistor, arguably the most important invention of the 20th century, came out of Bell Labs in the late 1940s as a clunky device of wire, gold foil, glue, and other components. The first transistorized consumer product, the Regency TR-1 radio, went on sale Oct. 18, 1954, and sold out almost immediately. If you owned one, you were the coolest thing on two legs. It had four transistors.

Now fast-forward to this fact: The world's chipmakers, who etch transistors into silicon, are today turning out close to ten million transistors per month for every man, woman, and child on the planet. That figure, in line with other estimates, comes from Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds.

As a guy who was proud to own a transistor radio in the fifth grade, I found that hard to believe. So I went looking for my ten million transistors a month. What I found, impossible though it seems, is that I actually consume many times that amount. Probably you do too.

Sitting on my desk is an Apple G3 computer with 128 megabytes of random access memory. Every byte uses eight transistors. "Mega" means million. So that's more than a billion transistors in RAM. (Ignore the hard disk, which doesn't use transistors for storage.) The Motorola microprocessor inside my computer holds more than 20 million transistors, but beyond that the folks at Apple just can't count all the other transistors in the machine. A weary PR person e-mails me: "We do not have the bandwidth for such an endeavor."

Next to my desktop computer is my laptop, another Apple G3, this time with 256 megs of RAM--more than two billion transistors. An overworked FORTUNE IT department hasn't collected my old laptop, so it's still sitting there with about 800 million transistors.

Behind my laptop, my Motorola StarTac phone is recharging. Though far smaller and lighter than the Regency TR-1 radio, it holds some 150 million transistors. Next to the phone, my dinged-up old Palm V is also recharging. Figure 20 million transistors.

Beside my desk is a Sony color TV with a VCR and a cable box. Millions more transistors. How many millions? I don't know. Let's just say millions.

So literally within reach as I sit here are over four billion transistors. The innards of a billion TR-1 radios. If each of those radios weighed eight ounces, that would be...radios weighing as much as 700 fully fueled Boeing 747s. All on my desk.

But those aren't all the transistors I own. At home we've got two desktop PCs, a couple of years old, with more than a half- billion transistors each. My wife has a cell phone and an iPaq handheld computer. Television? I haven't conducted a full home video audit and don't intend to, but I think we've got four TVs plus associated VCRs and cable boxes. Also a video camera. And the PlayStation2! More than a quarter-billion transistors in that alone. Our cars contain millions of transistors. I've heard that our refrigerator has some, but I'm not sure. Let's make a very conservative estimate that our home has two billion transistors.

Combining office and home, we're well beyond six billion transistors. That's more than 1.5 billion for each of the four people in our family, or more than 12 years' worth of production at the current rate. You know we won't be using any of these transistors 12 years from now, probably not three years from now. And of course we're ignoring our share of the uncountable billions we engage every time we pick up the phone or go online or step onto an airplane.

These are astonishing facts that we take utterly for granted. The explanation is that transistors have become almost incalculably cheap. When you buy a typical RAM chip, each transistor costs less than you pay for a single letter in a single word printed in a single copy of the Wall Street Journal.

None of these facts should surprise us. They're merely Moore's Law at work and could have been predicted decades ago. And little office and household command six billion transistors. The human brain has 12 billion neurons. Now, transistors aren't neurons, and computers aren't brains or even close. But the numbers demand attention. Computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil says that by 2029, $1,000 will buy the computing power of 1,000 brains--trillions of transistors.

So what's the point? Only this: That the transistor has achieved total success. It has become invisible. Ubiquitous yet unnoticed, it's the most powerful technology of our time. As transistors move into virtually every object with which we interact, keep an eye out for them. They'll only get harder to spot--but if we don't know where they are, we truly can't understand our world.