Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Iron Man and Transistors

Every comic book featuring Iron Man from the early 1960s has constant references to transistors. Unless you grew up in the 60s, this will go over your head so I thought I would go into a little detail.

During the first half of the 20th century, electronics used vacuum tubes. These had a few wires inside a glass tube which kept the air out. Air acts as an insulator so they had to have a vacuum. These were big. The smallest ones were as big as a tube of lipstick. The big ones were as big as a light bulb. They took minutes to warm up before they started to work. They were heavy. They needed a lot of power. There was no such thing as a portable radio back then. The best you could get was a car radio which ran off of the car battery (and could run it down if the motor wasn't running).

The transistor changed that. It was tiny, durable, and only used a fraction of the power. Suddenly portable, battery-powered radios and even TVs were possible. Of course, the radios were still the size of a paperback book, AM-only, and they only came with an earphone for one ear but you could carry one around with you for the first time.

So, transistors were a "big" thing.

Now, Stan Lee didn't really understand what a transistor was. He just knew that they were responsible for miniaturization. He figured that you could attach a transistor to a magnet and boost its power. And he was really confused about the relationship between transistors and batteries so Iron Man was constantly "charging his transistors" instead of his batteries.

No one talks about transistors, these days. They were replaced with integrated circuit chips which hold the equivalent of many transistors. If you are carrying a smart phone then you are carrying millions of transistors around with you. That's why the Iron Man movie changed the focus from his transistors to his power source.


micro m2 card said...

Action scenes in comic-book films? Overrated. That's the lesson of Iron Man, which goes light on CGI fireworks but heavy enough on its most electrifying element Robert Downey Jr. to compensate.

Anonymous said...

You sir, made my day! Thank you for this post. I was having trouble understanding and translating this thing Ironman was saying about transistors all the time!

Rowerowe Fightthepower said...

Excellent post! Mind if I link to it for my Iron Man reviews blog? I'm going through those early "Tales of Suspense" issues and constantly having to explain why Stan Lee clearly has no idea what a transistor is.