electronics industry

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

electronics industry

electronics industry, the business of creating, designing, producing, and selling devices such as radios, televisions, stereos, computers, semiconductors, transistors, and integrated circuits (see electronics). As sales of electronic products in the United States grew from some $200 million in 1927 to over $266 billion in 1990, the electronics industry transformed factories, offices, and homes, emerging as a key economic sector that rivaled the chemical, steel, and auto industries in size.

The industry traces its origins to the invention of the two-element electron tube (1904) by John Ambrose Flemming, and the three-element tube (1906) by Lee De Forest. These inventions led to the development of commercial radio in the 1920s, which boosted radio sales to $300 million by the end of the decade. In 1947, the electronics industry made another important advance when John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invented the transistor. Smaller, lighter, and more durable than the vacuum tubes that had been used in radios, transistors touched off a period of progressive miniaturization of electronic devices. Integrated circuits, which were developed in the 1950s, allowed the integration of several circuits into one circuit, and the introduction of analog devices in the 1960s vastly increased the amount of information that could be stored on a single silicon chip.

Other important sectors that have made great advances since the 1970s include laser and optical electronics, digital electronics, and microwave electronics. Advances in the field of electronics have also played a key role in the development of space technology and satellite communications; inaugurated a revolution in the computer industry that led to the introduction of the personal computer; resulted in the introduction of computer-guided robots in factories; produced systems for storing and transmitting data electronically; greatly expanded the market for popular music and culture; and, in the process, transformed life at home, the office, and the factory. Many of these innovations, such as the transistor, had their origins in military research, which needed increasingly complex electronic devices for modern high-tech warfare.

In the 1960s, the U.S. consumer electronics industry went into decline as manufacturers were unable to compete with the quality and pricing of foreign products, especially the electronic goods produced by Japanese companies such as Sony and Hitachi. By the 1980s, however, U.S. manufacturers became the world leaders in semiconductor development and assembly. In the 1990s semiconductors were essential components of personal computers and most other electronic items (including cellular telephones, televisions, medical equipment, and "smart" appliances). While U.S. companies are still a major presence in the semiconductor industry (representing about 40% of world sales in 1998), the consumer items themselves are mostly made overseas. Worldwide electronic sales were nearly $700 billion in 1997.

See E. Braun, Revolution in Miniature (1978); D. W. A. Dummer, Electronics Inventions and Discoveries (1983); R. Houglum, Electronics: Concepts, Applications, and History (1985); D. P. Angel, Restructuring for Innovation: The Remaking of the U.S. Semiconductor Industry (1994).

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