Suction pump to transistor

In the late 1500s and early 1600s the newfound use of glass for windows and continuing expansion of metallurgy was requiring ever increasing amounts of timber for fuel. As nearby forests were diminished, demands for the mining of coal and coke increased. New uses for metals of all kinds added to the need for mining. A common problem in mining operations of the day was removing the water that seeped down into the bottom of the mines. Water pumps existed but they only worked for a short vertical distance and nobody seemed to know why. The consideration of that problem spawned Torricelli’s understanding of air pressure and the invention of the barometer and started technology down a path that led to the steam engine and the core of the industrial revolution.

In the same general era, William Gilbert wrote a pioneering work on magnetic force that set the stage for a new path of science and technology leading eventually to our modern understanding of matter and energy and creating the technology of electronics. These two new paths ran separate at times but also became entwined in a fascinating way.

A year after Torricelli created the first barometer in 1643, Otto von Guericke built the first air pump and started experimenting with vacuums. In 1657 Robert Hooke built a better air pump. In 1660 von Guericke demonstrated the production of sparks of static electricity by rubbing a ball of sulphur. This event has no connection to the air pump other than the fact that von Guericke was involved in both, but both of these moments are at the beginning of two chains of events that come back together in 1855 with the invention of another vacuum pump. Here is how it happened:

Now that we were aware of the basic functioning of an atmosphere, Robert Boyle could lay a foundation of work that described a mathematical relationship between pressure and volume in gases. The combination of an understanding of air pressure and Boyle’s law led to the understanding that if a low pressure could be created, the weight of the atmosphere could be used to create or transmit power. It is the rise and fall of air pressure that drives the steam engine. For this reason, Newcomen called his early engine an “atmospheric engine”. It was the steam engine that powered the “industrial revolution”.

The field of electricity and magnetism continued to fascinate and astound but for the most part these two pathways remained apart at this point.

  • 1729 – electrical conductance
  • 1746 – Leyden jar
  • 1752 – lightening rod (Franklin)
  • 1780 – electrical stimulation (Galvani)
  • 1800 – battery (voltaic pile)

It was the need of fuel for glassmaking that had driven the understanding of pressure and design of pumps. So, it was ironic that a glassmaker would take technology to the next level. In 1854, Heinrich Geissler used mercury in a vacuum pump and managed to create a more complete vacuum. This lower pressure allowed the thin gas remaining to glow when electric current was discharged through it. By 1855, Geissler was making glass tubes with a low vacuum level designed to show off the discharge. They became called, “Geissler tubes”. Sprengler and Crookes refined the mercury vacuum pump and made even better tubes that became known as “Crookes tubes” and eventually cathode ray tubes (CRT).

In 1906, the “audion” developed by Lee De Forest, was the first triode amplifying tube. Vacuum triode tubes launched the era of electronics before giving way to solid state electronics based on the transistor.

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