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Those cornflakes in your computer

I wouldn't recognize a silicon chip if you put one on my breakfast plate. But I know that it is already affecting my life and will probably affect the world -- maybe transform it. It becomes the symbol of all the mysterious new technical process that hurry us into a new era. In a way the Model T did that. It put the world on wheels, created suburban sprawl, and made young folks independent of their families. But Model Ts were easy to understand compared to the new technology. How did it get started?

The time is 1946; the place, the Moore School of Engineering in Pennsylvania. An experiment has been rigged up. It is called Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC). It occupies a large room and contains 18,000 vacuum tubes, and the contraption consumes enough energy to drive a locomotive. What is it? Why, it is a kind of electronic syperbrain: Feed in the questions, press buttons, and out pop answers that would otherwise take weeks or months.

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Fine. And today an equivalent computer fits into a pocket, costs less than $ 100 and runs on flashlight batteries. Such are the dimensions of the microelectronic revolution, observes Colin Norman, who has just prepared a 63 -page pamphlet for the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit research organization of this city.

How did they do it? Mr. Norman explains it, and I still haven't the least idea. But that doesn't mean that I'm not awed. It started back in 1946-47 with the development of the trnasistor. (I am supposed to know what a transistor is, but please get somebody else to explain it.) Anyway, it is the "building block of all modern electronics," and it swiftly rendered obsolete much of the circuitry on which electronic equipment had hitherto been based. Ah, here's the explanation, I will give it in Mr. Norman's words:

"transistors consist of semiconductor material -- usually silicon -- to which minute quantities of impurities such as phosphorus or boron have been added in discrete regions. The impurities alter the electrical properties of the semiconductor, causing it to conduct electricity when it is subjected to sufficiently large voltages.Transistors usually function like tiny electronic switches, shuttling electrical circuits."

Exactly, I couldn't have put it better myself. And now that you understand transistors let me add that at first there was a lot of trouble about hitching them up together with thousands of electric parts. This problem was got around ingeniously, Mr. Norman explains, with the development of the integrated circuit -- the "centerpiece of microelectronic technology." Let's just clear that up and then we can come back to nontechnical matters:

"In the late fifties, transistors were produced in batches in thin slices of silicon that were later cut into sections, each of which contained a single transistor. Scientists at Texas Instruments and at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Company had the bright idea of wiring the transistors together into a complete circuit while they were still in the slice of silicon." (Editor's comment: That was crafty, eh?) "The result was the first integrated circuit. . . . By 1980, the most densely packed circuits contained close to 100,000 components on a silicon chip measuring just five millimeters across, and the aluminum conductors linking them together were about 30 times thinner than a human hair."

I ask you, what can you say to a statement like that? In brief, in 30 years, an experiment that required a roomful of variegated vacuum tubes and components has been reduced to the size, in Mr. Norman's poetic phrase, "of a cornflake."

The point where the average reader picks all this up is to comprehend that, like it or not, we are in the Electronic Age, where little cornflakes can guide, control, and direct huge machines, production lines, even factories -- robots, in short. You don't have to know how transistors are made or "sliced" off (like bacon) to understand that these robot memories can enormously increase productivity. They can create potentially higher profits and wages and change man's civilization and man's life.

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Mr. Norman ponders that at the end. Those funny little cornflakes. They promise a potential array of benefits, and we're just starting. They could be translated, says Mr. Norman, into "a shortened work week, longer vacations, sabbaticals" and things like that. There really is no end.

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