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A transistor is a semiconductor device used to amplify and switch electronic signals and electrical power. It is composed of semiconductor material with at least three terminals for connection to an external circuit. A voltage or current applied to one pair of the transistor's terminals changes the current through another pair of terminals. Because the controlled (output) power can be higher than the controlling (input) power, a transistor can amplify a signal. Today, some transistors are packaged individually, but many more are found embedded in integrated circuits.
The transistor is the fundamental building block of modern electronic devices, and is ubiquitous in modern electronic systems. Following its development in 1947 by American physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, the transistor revolutionized the field of electronics, and paved the way for smaller and cheaper radios, calculators, and computers, among other things. The transistor is on the list of IEEE milestones in electronics and the inventors were jointly awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their achievement.
The transistor is the key active component in practically all modern electronics. Many consider it to be one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Its importance in today's society rests on its ability to be mass-produced using a highly automated process (semiconductor device fabrication) that achieves astonishingly low per-transistor costs. The invention of the first transistor at Bell Labs was named an IEEE Milestone in 2009.
Although several companies each produce over a billion individually packaged (known as discrete) transistors every year, the vast majority of transistors are now produced in integrated circuits (often shortened to IC, microchips or simply chips), along with diodes, resistors, capacitors and other electronic components, to produce complete electronic circuits. A logic gate consists of up to about twenty transistors whereas an advanced microprocessor, as of 2009, can use as many as 3 billion transistors (MOSFETs).
The transistor's low cost, flexibility, and reliability have made it a ubiquitous device. Transistorized mechatronic circuits have replaced electromechanical devices in controlling appliances and machinery. It is often easier and cheaper to use a standard microcontroller and write a computer program to carry out a control function than to design an equivalent mechanical control function.