A transistor has three legs: emitter, base, and collector.


In electronics, a transistor is a semiconductor device commonly used to amplify or switch electronic signals. A transistor is made of a solid piece of a semiconductor material, with at least three terminals for connection to an external circuit. A voltage or current applied to one pair of the transistor's terminals changes the current flowing through another pair of terminals. Because the controlled (output) power can be much larger than the controlling (input) power, the transistor provides amplification of a signal.

The transistor is the fundamental building block of modern electronic devices, and is used in radio, telephone, computer and other electronic systems. The transistor is often cited as being one of the greatest achievements in the 20th century, and some consider it one of the most important technological breakthroughs in human history. Some transistors are packaged individually but most are found in integrated circuits.

Simplified operation[]


The essential usefulness of a transistor comes from its ability to use a small signal applied between one pair of its terminals to control a much larger signal at another pair of terminals. This property is called gain. A transistor can control its output in proportion to the input signal, that is, can act as an amplifier. Or, the transistor can be used to turn current on or off in a circuit like an electrically controlled switch, where the amount of current is determined by other circuit elements.

The two types of transistors have slight differences in how they are used in a circuit. A bipolar transistor has terminals labeled base, collector and emitter. A small current at base terminal (that is, flowing from the base to the emitter) can control or switch a much larger current between collector and emitter terminals. For a field-effect transistor, the terminals are labeled gate, source, and drain, and a voltage at the gate can control a current between source and drain.

The image to the right represents a typical bipolar transistor in a circuit. Charge will flow between emitter and collector terminals depending on the current in the base. Since internally the base and emitter connections behave like a semiconductor diode, a voltage drop develops between base and emitter while the base current exists. The size of this voltage depends on the material the transistor is made from, and is referred to as VBE.

Transistor as a switch[]

Transistors are commonly used as electronic switches, for both high power applications including switched-mode power supplies and low power applications such as logic gates.

It can be seen from the graph that once the base voltage reaches a certain level, shown at point B, the current will no longer increase with increasing VBE and the output will be held at a fixed voltage.[dubious – discuss] The transistor is then said to be saturated. Hence, values of input voltage can be chosen such that the output is either completely off,[9] or completely on. The transistor is acting as a switch, and this type of operation is common in digital circuits where only "on" and "off" values are relevant.

Transistor as an amplifier[]

The above common emitter amplifier is designed so that a small change in voltage in (Vin) changes the small current through the base of the transistor and the transistor's current amplification combined with the properties of the circuit mean that small swings in Vin produce large changes in Vout.

It is important that the operating parameters of the transistor are chosen and the circuit designed such that as far as possible the transistor operates within a linear portion of the graph, such as that shown between A and B, otherwise the output signal will suffer distortion.

Various configurations of single transistor amplifier are possible, with some providing current gain, some voltage gain, and some both.

From mobile phones to televisions, vast numbers of products include amplifiers for sound reproduction, radio transmission, and signal processing. The first discrete transistor audio amplifiers barely supplied a few hundred milliwatts, but power and audio fidelity gradually increased as better transistors became available and amplifier architecture evolved.

Modern transistor audio amplifiers of up to a few hundred watts are common and relatively inexpensive.

Some musical instrument amplifier manufacturers mix transistors and vacuum tubes in the same circuit, as some believe tubes have a distinctive sound.

The transistor primarily provides current gain. PNP, NPN, or MOS transistors can also be used. The resistor used on the base of the transistor is typically around 1K ohm. On inductive loads (i.e., motors, relays, solenoids), a diode is often connected backwards across the load to suppress the voltage spikes (back EMF) generated when turning devices off. [1]

Transistor Check[]

Transistors are two pairs of diodes connected placed back to back. If your meter has a "diode check" function then you can use the same principles as measuring only one diode. If a multimeter with a "diode check" function is used in this test, it will be found that the emitter-base junction possesses a slightly greater forward voltage drop than the collector-base junction. This forward voltage difference is due to the disparity in doping concentration between the emitter and collector regions of the transistor: the emitter is a much more heavily doped piece of semiconductor material than the collector, causing its junction with the base to produce a higher forward voltage drop.

Knowing this, it becomes possible to determine which wire is which on an unmarked transistor. This is important because transistor packaging, unfortunately, is not standardized. All bipolar transistors have three wires, of course, but the positions of the three wires on the actual physical package are not arranged in any universal, standardized order.

Suppose a technician finds a bipolar transistor and proceeds to measure continuity with a multimeter set in the "diode check" mode. Measuring between pairs of wires and recording the values displayed by the meter, the technician obtains the following data:

  • Meter touching wire 1 (+ side) and 2 (- side): "OL" or infinity
  • Meter touching wire 1 (- side) and 2 (+ side): "OL" or infinity
  • Meter touching wire 1 (+ side) and 3 (- side): 0.655 volts (.7 volts)
  • Meter touching wire 1 (- side) and 3 (+ side): "OL" or infinity
  • Meter touching wire 2 (+ side) and 3 (- side): 0.621 volts (.7 volts)
  • Meter touching wire 2 (- side) and 3 (+ side): "OL" or infinity

The only combinations of test points giving conducting meter readings are wires 1 and 3 (red test lead on 1 and black test lead on 3), and wires 2 and 3 (red test lead on 2 and black test lead on 3). These two readings must indicate forward biasing of the emitter-to-base junction (0.655 volts) and the collector-to-base junction (0.621 volts).

Now we look for the one wire common to both sets of conductive readings. It must be the base connection of the transistor, because the base is the only layer of the three-layer device common to both sets of PN junctions (emitter-base and collector-base). In this example, that wire is number 3, being common to both the 1-3 and the 2-3 test point combinations. In both those sets of meter readings, the black (-) meter test lead was touching wire 3, which tells us that the base of this transistor is made of N-type semiconductor material (black = negative). Thus, the transistor is an PNP type with base on wire 3, emitter on wire 1 and collector on wire 2. [2]


  1. ARM mbed. Drivers, Relays, and Solid State Relays. 20 Apr 2015. [1]
  2. Electronics Electrical Information. Meter check of a transistor BIPOLAR JUNCTION TRANSISTORS. September 2, 2008. [2]


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