Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS



Vacuum Tubes


Quantum Mechanics




The Point Contact

The P-N Junction

The Junction
(sandwich) Transistor

The First
Silicon Transistor

Modern Transistors

The Four Layer Diode

The Chip



A diode, or "rectifier,"  is any device through which electricity can flow in only one direction. The first diodes were crystals used as rectifiers in home radio kits. A weak radio signal was fed into the crystal through a very fine wire called a cat's whisker.  The crystal removed the high frequency radio carrier signal, allowing the part of the signal with the audio information to come through loud and clear. The crystal was filled with impurities, making some sections more resistant to electrical flow than others. Using the radio required positioning the cat's whiskers over the right kind of impurity to get electricity to flow through the crystal to the output below it.

At the time, though, no one really understood about the impurities -- then in 1939 Russell Ohl accidentally discovered that it was the boundary between sections of different purity that made the crystal work. Now that the way they work is understood, manufacturers make crystal diodes that work much more consistently than the ones in those original radio kits.

A crystal diode is made of two different types of semiconductors right next to each other. One side is easy for electrons to travel through; one side is much tougher. It's something like trying to swim through a pool filled with water and then a pool filled with mud: swimming through water is easy; swimming through mud is next to impossible. To an electron some semiconductors seem like water, some like mud.  (For more information, read about semiconductors in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Conduction.) 

One side of the semiconductor boundary is like mud, one like water. If you try to get electricity to move from the mud side to the water side, there's no problem. The electrons just jump across the boundary, forming a current. But try to make electricity go the other way and nothing will happen. Electrons that didn't have to work hard to travel around the water side just don't have enough energy to make it into the mud side. (In real life, there are always a few electrons that can trickle in the wrong direction, but not enough to make a big difference.) 

This boundary has turned out to be crucial for our daily lives. Diodes change the alternating current that comes from your wall outlet into the direct current that most appliances need. And transistors need two such boundaries to work. 

-- The Way Things Work by David Macaulay 
-- Physics for Scientists and Engineers by Paul Fishbane, Stephen Gasiorowicz, and Stephen Thornton 
-- Feynman's Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman

Copyright 1999, ScienCentral, Inc, and The American Institute of Physics. No portion of this web site may be reproduced without written permission. All Rights Reserved.