Field-Emission Displays Get a Second Wind

Will resurgent research and development make FEDs a flat-panel phoenix, or will developers get burned again?

4 min read

1 October 2003--The field-emission display, known as the FED, was the darling of the flat-panel display industry in the 1990s. Replacing the single, large hot cathode of a cathode-ray tube (CRT) with tiny cold-cathode emitters, hundreds or even thousands of such cone-shaped ”microtips” for every display pixel, the FED promised to bring CRT-like performance to a flat-panel arena that was hungry for better visual quality. But it wasn't too long before the promise fizzled and FEDs looked like just another over-hyped might-have-been technology.

Just as it seemed that FED pixels were flickering their last, though, some of the very same companies that got burned last time around began reviving their R&D efforts and promising prototypes. Engineers from these companies and others claim that a second generation of technology embodies fixes to the many flaws that killed its predecessor while delivering both visual quality and the potential for very low manufacturing costs that are similar to those for CRTs.

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How the First Transistor Worked

Even its inventors didn’t fully understand the point-contact transistor

12 min read
A phot of an outstretched hand with several transistors in the palm of it.

A 1955 AT&T publicity photo shows [in palm, from left] a phototransistor, a junction transistor, and a point-contact transistor.


The vacuum-tube triode wasn’t quite 20 years old when physicists began trying to create its successor, and the stakes were huge. Not only had the triode made long-distance telephony and movie sound possible, it was driving the entire enterprise of commercial radio, an industry worth more than a billion dollars in 1929. But vacuum tubes were power-hungry and fragile. If a more rugged, reliable, and efficient alternative to the triode could be found, the rewards would be immense.

The goal was a three-terminal device made out of semiconductors that would accept a low-current signal into an input terminal and use it to control the flow of a larger current flowing between two other terminals, thereby amplifying the original signal. The underlying principle of such a device would be something called the field effect—the ability of electric fields to modulate the electrical conductivity of semiconductor materials. The field effect was already well known in those days, thanks to diodes and related research on semiconductors.

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