The Little Transistor that Could

What You Need

The Little Transistor that Could By me (Photograph) [GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons


To explore the nature of technology through the history of the transistor. 


In this investigation, students will look at the development of a technology that has had a huge impact on modern life—the transistor. Students will look at some of the constraints that affected the development of the transistor and will examine the wide-ranging effect of a single innovation.

Students will examine how the engineers at the Bell Labs used knowledge of science and technology, together with strategies of design, to solve practical problems. This is important because even in middle school, students typically do not distinguish between an engineering model of experimentation where the goal is to produce a desirable outcome, and the scientific model of experimentation where the goal is to understand the relation between cause and effect.

Although the main focus of this investigation is not on the scientific aspects of the transistor, it would be helpful if students have already had some exposure to the physical properties of conductors and insulators.


To begin this lesson, conduct a brainstorming session in which students think of examples of devices that could contain transistors. You should keep a list of their ideas on a large piece of paper, blackboard, or SmartBoard.

Tell students that sometimes a single invention can change everybody's life. That was true of the transistor. Before the transistor, electronic devices like the radio and television had to use vacuum tubes. A vacuum tube, which was big and broke easily, was either a glass or metal tube with the air sucked out of it. Electricity passed through it to make the radio or TV work.


This investigation focuses student thinking on ways in which technology can help people. Students explore two resources and investigate the nature of technology as it relates to the development of the transistor.

To begin, divide your students into groups and direct them to use the The Little Transistor that Could student esheet to go to The Transitor from Nobelprize.org. Students should click on the link for "Learn about how a transistor functions and try to build a replica" under the Readings section. They should follow through the interactive slideshow that covers the history, science, and uses of the transistor. Depending on how quickly your students work, going through this resource could take some time. 

Then, working in small groups, students should explore Transistorized, from PBS. 

Students should use The Little Transistor that Could student sheet to answer these questions as they explore the resources: 

  • What was the problem that the developers of the transistor were trying to solve? 
    • (The developers were trying to improve on the vacuum tubes used to help amplify signals on telephone lines because the tubes were unreliable, produced too much heat, and used too much power.)
  • Name some of the early uses of the transistor. 
    • (Some early uses include telephones, hearing aids, and personal radios.)
  • What were the advantages of the transistor over the vacuum tube? 
    • (It was cheaper to make, smaller, and more reliable.)
  • Do we still use transistors? If so, how?
    • (Yes, they are an integral part of virtually every electronic device.)
  • In what way has the transistor changed modern life? Give specific examples. 
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Discuss the answers to the questions with the entire class. In the discussion of side effects of transistor technology, steer student attention to the number of jobs created by the technology. Have students brainstorm on the number of occupations that exist today that might not have been possible without the transistor. You can use this to help students develop an understanding of the great variety of occupations related to technology.


Ask students to write a one-page essay in response to this statement:

When we take technological innovation for granted, it's a sign of that technology's success.

Have them use the transistor as an example, but also mention several other technological innovations that we take for granted.


In Engineer It! students will use the same steps as an engineer to design boats, build bridges, windmills, and airplanes and then test their performance in water tanks, shake tables, and wind tunnels. Each area–either Wind, Water, or Structures–in this online exhibit has a challenge for students to solve.

The Return of the Vacuum Tube, from ScienceNOW, examines new research into vacuum tubes that could fire-up the technology once more.


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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards