How Much Did Early Transistors Cost?

About a billion times more than they do now

2 min read
How Much Did Early Transistors Cost?
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

In our coverage of the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, you might have noticed a few different numbers being thrown around for the price of transistors in the early days of the integrated circuit.

There’s Carver Mead’s recollection that Caltech students were buying discrete transistors for about a dollar or so around 1960 – about $8 today. 

A similar figure crops up in Dan Hutcheson’s beautiful plot of transistor prices and production levels since 1955. According to his data, the average transistor price in 1965 wasn’t very far off from that $8 mark.

And in Chris Mack’s piece on why Moore’s Law has lasted for so long, he quotes a price of $30 (in present-day dollars) for the integrated circuit transistors of 50 years ago.

These numbers aren’t necessarily in conflict. Then, as always, price depended on the particulars of the product and how many were manufactured.

Hutcheson’s data before 1976, he told me, was cobbled together from a number of sources including the Western Electronics Manufacturers Association, Bell Labs, and private corporate studies. The earliest data, he said, is based mainly on discrete transistors.

Mack drew his higher, $30 figure from an June 1964 article that integrated circuit co-inventor Robert Noyce wrote for IEEE Spectrum. Noyce’s article included price ranges for transistors supplied to a particularly exacting customer: the U.S. military.

Noyce estimated a price of about $4 at the time ($30 today) for both discrete and integrated circuit transistors made in small volumes. Given that, as Noyce wrote, “military and space applications accounted for essentially the entire integrated circuits market last year, and will use over 95 per cent of the integrated circuits produced this year,” it’s not an unreasonable price to quote for the transistors in integrated circuits at the time. 

That said, military-grade prices weren’t simple either. Noyce noted the price of discrete transistors depended on the reliability. And in both cases, the price went down significantly for larger orders. 

Regardless of how you cut it, though, it’s fair to say that there’s been a staggering reduction — roughly a factor of a billion over the last 50 years. 

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The First Million-Transistor Chip: the Engineers’ Story

Intel’s i860 RISC chip was a graphics powerhouse

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Twenty people crowd into a cubicle, the man in the center seated holding a silicon wafer full of chips

Intel's million-transistor chip development team

In San Francisco on Feb. 27, 1989, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., startled the world of high technology by presenting the first ever 1-million-transistor microprocessor, which was also the company’s first such chip to use a reduced instruction set.

The number of transistors alone marks a huge leap upward: Intel’s previous microprocessor, the 80386, has only 275,000 of them. But this long-deferred move into the booming market in reduced-instruction-set computing (RISC) was more of a shock, in part because it broke with Intel’s tradition of compatibility with earlier processors—and not least because after three well-guarded years in development the chip came as a complete surprise. Now designated the i860, it entered development in 1986 about the same time as the 80486, the yet-to-be-introduced successor to Intel’s highly regarded 80286 and 80386. The two chips have about the same area and use the same 1-micrometer CMOS technology then under development at the company’s systems production and manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Ore. But with the i860, then code-named the N10, the company planned a revolution.

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