from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Selection of discrete transistors in various THT housing shapes

A transistor is an electronic semiconductor - device for controlling mostly low electrical voltages and currents . It is by far the most important "active" component of electronic circuits , which is used, for example, in communications technology , power electronics and in computer systems. Transistors - mostly as on / off switches - are of particular importance in integrated circuits , which is what the widespread microelectronics make possible.

The term "transistor" is a case word of the English trans fer res istor , resulting in the electrical function of a by an applied voltage or an electrical current controllable electrical resistance corresponds. The mode of operation is similar to that of a corresponding electron tube, namely the triode .


Replica of the first transistor by Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain from 1947/48 in the Nixdorf Museum
John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, 1948
Close-up of a germanium transistor from the 1960s with a central germanium disk and the “indium pill” in the middle as a contact

Julius Edgar Lilienfeld applied for the first patents on the principle of the transistor in 1925. In his work, Lilienfeld describes an electronic component that has the properties of an electron tube and, in the broadest sense, is comparable to what is now known as a field effect transistor (FET). At that time it was not technically possible to implement field effect transistors in practice.

In 1934, the physicist Oskar Heil patented the construction of a field effect transistor, which is a semiconductor FET with an insulated gate. The first practically realized junction field effect transistors JFETs with a pn-junction (positive-negative) and a gate as control electrode go back to Herbert F. Mataré , Heinrich Welker and parallel to them William Shockley and Walter H. Brattain from 1945. The field effect transistor was thus historically realized before the bipolar transistor , but at that time it could not yet be implemented in practice. At that time these components were not called transistors; John R. Pierce coined the term “transistor” in 1948.

From 1942 Herbert Mataré experimented at Telefunken with what he called a duodiode (double- tip diode ) as part of the development of a detector for Doppler radio measurement systems ( RADAR ). The duo diodes built by Mataré for this purpose were point contact diodes based on semiconductors with two metal contacts placed very close to one another on the semiconductor substrate. Mataré experimented with polycrystalline silicon (polysilicon for short), which he obtained from Karl Seiler from the Telefunken Laboratory in Breslau , and with germanium , which he received from a research team at the Air Force near Munich (in which Heinrich Welker also participated). During the experiments with germanium, he discovered effects that could not be explained as two independently working diodes: the voltage on one diode could influence the current through the other diode. This observation formed the basic idea for the later tip transistors , an early design of the bipolar transistor.

In the Bell Laboratories in the United States , the group around John Bardeen , William Shockley and Walter Brattain developed the first working bipolar transistor in the form of a tip transistor, which was presented in-house for the first time on December 23, 1947. For the invention of the bipolar transistor, John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 . Since Shockley and his team had realized a bipolar transistor which is not based on the functional principle of a field effect transistor, there are no references in the US patent to the theoretical preliminary work by Lilienfeld and Heil from the 1920s.

Independently of the work in the USA, the two scientists Herbert Mataré and Heinrich Welker also developed a functioning bipolar transistor in France. They were successful a few months later and applied for a patent for it on August 13, 1948 in Paris. On May 18, 1949, this development was presented to the public under the artificial word "Transistron", but the new term "Transistron" was not widely used as a result.

Further technological improvements followed in the following years. In 1951 , the group around Gordon Teal , Morgan Sparks and William Shockley at Bell Labs succeeded in manufacturing a flat transistor that consists of just one crystal. Until then, bipolar transistors were constructed as tip transistors.

In the 1950s, there was a race between the electron tube and the bipolar transistors customary at the time, in which the chances of the bipolar transistor were often judged rather skeptically because of the comparatively low transit frequencies . However, the small size, the low energy requirement and later the increasing transit frequencies of the transistors meant that the electron tubes have meanwhile been replaced as signal amplifiers in almost all technical fields.

In practical use, field effect transistors, in contrast to the first bipolar transistors, hardly played a role in the 1950s to the late 1960s, although their theoretical principles have been known for a long time. Field effect transistors could not be manufactured economically with the knowledge at the time and were awkward to handle due to the risk of breakdown of the gate through unintentional electrostatic discharge . In order to solve the problems that arise with bipolar transistors, such as power requirements and requirements for integrated circuits , developers began to study semiconductor surfaces in more detail from around 1955 and found manufacturing processes such as planar technology , which brought field effect transistors to series production in the following decade.

The first commercially available bipolar transistors were made from the semiconductor material germanium and, like electron tubes, melted into tiny glass tubes. The differently doped zones were created with a central germanium platelet into which “ indium pills ” were alloyed from both sides . The latter penetrated deep into the base material, but a base section of the desired thickness remained free in the middle. In 1954, silicon bipolar transistors came on the market (Gordon Teal at Texas Instruments and Morris Tanenbaum at Bell Labs). This basic material was more easily available and cheaper. Metal or plastic housings have largely been used since the late 1960s. Areas of application were initially in analog circuit technology such as the transistor radios emerging at the time . As a result, the basic material germanium was increasingly replaced by the technically more advantageous silicon, which covers a larger working temperature range with significantly lower residual currents and, thanks to the silicon dioxide passivation, has more long-term stability in the electrical parameters compared to germanium.

The first field effect transistor based on gallium arsenide , so-called MESFET , was developed by Carver Mead in 1966 . Thin film transistors (English: thin film transistors , abbreviated TFT ) were developed by P. Weimer as early as 1962, but could only be used around 30 years later in the field of color TFT displays that are common today.

If all the transistors in all circuits that have been manufactured so far, such as RAM , processors , etc., are added up, the transistor is now the technical functional unit that has been and is produced by mankind in the highest total numbers. Modern integrated circuits , such as the microprocessors used in personal computers , consist of many millions to billions of transistors.


There are two important groups of transistors, namely bipolar transistors and field effect transistors (FET), which differ from one another in the type of control. A list with a rough classification or grouping of the transistors and other transistor variants can be found under List of electrical components .

Bipolar transistor

Circuit symbols of the bipolar transistor
BJT NPN symbol-fr.svg
BJT PNP symbol-fr.svg

Scheme of an npn transistor that is operated in the amplification range. In the semiconductor crystal, electrical current is transmitted through holes and electrons.

In bipolar transistors , both mobile negative charge carriers, the electrons , and positive charge carriers, so-called defect electrons , contribute to the function and to the charge transport. Defect electrons, also known as holes , are unoccupied states in the valence band that move through the crystal through generation and recombination of electrons. The bipolar transistors include the IGBT and the HJBT . The most important representative, however, is the bipolar junction transistor (BJT).

The bipolar transistor is driven by an electric current . The connections are designated as base , emitter , collector (abbreviated in the circuit diagram by the letters B, E, C). A small control current on the base-emitter path leads to changes in the space charge zones inside the bipolar transistor and can thereby control a large current on the collector-emitter path. Depending on the doping sequence in the structure, a distinction is made between npn (negative-positive-negative) and pnp transistors (positive-negative-positive). In this context, doping means the introduction of foreign atoms into a layer of the high-purity semiconductor material during the manufacturing process in order to change the crystal structure. Bipolar transistors are basically always self -blocking: Without activation by means of a small current through the base-emitter path, the transistor blocks the collector-emitter path.

In the circuit symbol, the connection emitter (E) is provided with a small arrow in both cases: in the case of an npn transistor, this points away from the component, in the case of a pnp transistor it points to the component. The arrow describes the technical direction of current (movement of imaginary positive charge carriers) at the emitter . In the early years, a circle was drawn around the respective symbol in circuit diagrams for the discrete transistors that were often used at the time to identify the transistor housing. The circle symbols have become uncommon due to today's predominant use of integrated circuits.

The combination of two bipolar transistors with pre-amplification and main amplification to form a unit is known as a Darlington transistor or a Darlington circuit. With this connection, a significantly higher current gain can be achieved than with a single transistor. Further details on the special features and controls can be found in the separate article on bipolar transistors and in the mathematical description of the bipolar transistor . Simple circuit examples can be found in the article about basic transistor circuits and the equivalent circuits of the bipolar transistor .

Field effect transistor

Field effect transistors, abbreviated to FET, or also referred to as unipolar transistors, are controlled by a voltage. Particularly for FETs, a very high input resistance in static operation and the almost powerless control is typical.

The 3 connections are referred to as the gate , which is the control connection, the drain , and the source (source, inflow). With MOSFETs ( metal oxide layer ) there is another connection, the bulk or body (i.e. substrate), which is usually connected to the source connection. The resistance and thus the current of the drain-source path is controlled by the voltage between gate and source and the resulting electric field . In the static case, the control is almost de-energized. In contrast to the collector current of bipolar transistors, the controlled current in the drain-source channel can flow in both directions.

The class of field effect transistors is divided into junction FETs (JFETs) and FETs, which are provided with a gate separated by an insulator (MISFET, MOSFET). In the case of field effect transistors, depending on the doping of the semiconductor, a distinction is also made between n- and p-FETs, which in MOSFETs are further divided into self-conducting and self-blocking types.

With unipolar transistors, only one type of charge carrier, negatively charged electrons or positively charged defect electrons, is involved in the transport of charge carriers through the transistor.

Junction field effect transistor

Circuit symbols of JFETs
JFET N-dep symbol.svg
JFET P-dep symbol.svg


At junction FETs (engl. Junction FET , JFET), the electrically insulating layer to the gate through a reverse biased powered diode and their different size space charge zone is formed. In their basic form, junction FETs are always self- conducting transistors: without voltage at the gate , they are conductive between source and drain . By applying a gate voltage of suitable polarity , the conductivity between source and drain is reduced. However, there are also special variants that have no source-drain current without a gate voltage ( normally-off JFET, normally-off JFET ).

JFETs also come in two types: n-channel and p-channel. In the circuit symbol, the arrow to the transistor is drawn for an n-channel and drawn on the gate connection, as shown in the adjacent figure. The direction of the arrow is reversed for the p-channel type. Because of their somewhat more complicated control, barrier-layer FETs are only used in special applications, such as microphone amplifiers .

Metal-oxide-semiconductor field effect transistor

Circuit symbols of MOSFETs
Basic structure of an n-channel MOSFET in cross section

The umbrella term MISFET is derived from the English term metal insulator semiconductor field-effect transistor (metal-insulator- semiconductor field-effect transistor ). They represent the other large group, the field effect transistors with a gate separated by an insulator (English: isolated gate field-effect transistor , IGFET ). For historical reasons, the term MOSFET is usually used synonymously instead of MISFET or IGFET. MOSFET stands for metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistor ( metal-oxide- semiconductor field-effect transistor ) and goes back to the origins of semiconductor technology; At that time, aluminum was used as the gate material and silicon dioxide as the insulator.

As the name suggests, a MOSFET is essentially defined by the structure of the gate layer stack. A “metallic” gate is electrically isolated from the current-carrying channel (semiconductor) between the source and drain by an oxide (insulator). With the technology status in 2008, highly doped polysilicon was mainly used as gate material, which means that the designation MISFET or MOSFET is incorrect. In connection with the substrate material silicon, silicon dioxide offers itself as an insulation material because it can be easily integrated into the manufacturing process and has good electrical properties. An exception is the high-k + metal gate technology , in which a metallic gate is used in conjunction with high-k materials made of metal oxides.

One advantage of MOSFET technology is that by using an insulator during operation, no space charge zone has to be formed as a separating layer, as in the case of a barrier layer FET with a corresponding control polarity. The gate connection can thus have both positive and negative voltages applied to the source connection in certain areas .

Depending on the doping of the base material, both n- and p-channel MOSFETs can be produced. These can also be configured in the form of self-conducting or self-locking types as part of the manufacturing process. The circuit symbols thus include four possible variations as shown in the adjacent figure. It can be seen here that the normally on MOSFETs, also referred to as the depletion type, have a solid line between the drain and source connections. This line is broken for the self-locking types, also known as the enrichment type. With these transistors, the arrow is drawn in at the bulk connection and with an n-channel type it is oriented towards the transistor symbol, with a p-channel it is drawn away from the transistor. The bulk connection is often permanently connected to the source connection directly on the semiconductor.

Because of their greater variety and easier electrical controllability, MOSFETs are by far the most widely produced transistors today. This was made possible primarily by CMOS technology, in which n- and p-MOSFETs are combined. Only the use of this technology made it possible to implement highly complex, integrated circuits with a significantly reduced power consumption that would not be possible with other transistor types.

Special transistor types

Close-up of a photo transistor (small square plate in the center of the image)

In addition to the basic transistor types, there are several other variants for special areas of application such as the bipolar transistor with an insulated gate electrode , abbreviated as IGBT. These transistors have been used in power electronics since the late 1990s and represent a combination of MOS and bipolar technology in a common housing. As these power transistors have blocking voltages of up to 6 kV and can switch currents of up to 3 kA, they replace in in power electronics increasingly thyristors .

Phototransistors are optically sensitive bipolar transistors such as those used in optocouplers . These transistors are not controlled by a small base-emitter current - the base connection is sometimes omitted - but exclusively by the incidence of light (for example used in light barriers). In the space charge zone of the pn junction of the bipolar transistor, light has an effect similar to that of the base current, which normally occurs at the base (B). Gate (G). Therefore, conventional transistors, in which this effect is undesirable, should be accommodated in an opaque housing.

A transistor that is seldom used today is the unijunction transistor , or UJT for short. In its function it is more similar to thyristors or diacs , but historically it is counted as a transistor. Its function, for example in sawtooth generators, is now largely realized through integrated circuits.

In some liquid crystal displays , the most color-capable TFT display, come per pixel in the active image area up to three thin film transistors (Engl. Thin film transistor TFT) to application. These field effect transistors are practically transparent. They are used to control the individual pixels and, compared to transistorless, color-capable LC displays, enable a higher contrast. Depending on the size of the TFT display, up to several million thin-film transistors can be used per screen.

In electrically programmable read-only memories such as EPROMs and EEPROMs , special MOSFETs with a so-called floating gate are used as the primary storage element. Due to the electrical charge stored in the floating gate, the transistor is permanently switched on or off and can store the information content of a bit . Writing, and for some types also erasing, is made possible by means of the quantum mechanical tunnel effect .

Other special forms such as the multiemitter transistor are used in integrated circuits , which in logic gates in the transistor-transistor logic performs the actual logical combination of the input signals.


In the course of the history of microelectronics - with regard to the functional internal structure - a large number of transistor designs have been developed, which differ primarily in the manufacture of the pn junctions and the arrangement of the doped areas. The first practical transistor was the tip transistor in 1947 . This was followed by numerous attempts to make production simpler and therefore cheaper. Important designs of bipolar single transistors are: the drawn transistor , the alloy transistor , the drift transistor , the diffusion transistor , the diffused-alloyed mesa transistor , the epitaxial transistor and the overlay transistor . Probably the most important design, however, is the planar transistor developed by Jean Hoerni in 1960 , which enabled both effective protection of the sensitive pn junction and parallel mass production on a substrate (wafer) - which had a major impact on the development of integrated circuits (ICs).

Double transistor from the 1970s

For u. a. It is important for differential amplifiers that both input transistors are operated as isothermally as possible. I.a. double transistors are produced for this, two transistors in one housing. Clearly visible in the picture on the left: The individual transistors on a small brass plate, which in turn are on a ceramic and electrically insulating bracket. Modern types in SO packages are partly based on two transistors on one die , there are also integrated transistor arrays (e.g. CA 3086) or completely integrated differential amplifiers in the form of operational amplifiers and comparators .

The field effect transistors , which were only realized in practice later, can be realized in a similar number of designs. The most important forms are the planar metal-oxide-semiconductor field effect transistor , the nanowire transistor and the FinFET .

In the early stages of microelectronics, the aim was to produce functional transistors with good electrical properties. Later, designs for special applications and requirements were increasingly developed, such as high-frequency , power and high-voltage transistors . This subdivision applies to both bipolar and field effect transistors. For some applications, special transistor types have also been developed that combine the typical properties of the two main types, e.g. B. the bipolar transistor with insulated gate electrode (IGBT).


Close-up of a semiconductor die with a bipolar transistor from above and the connecting wires

In the early days, bipolar transistors were made from the semiconductor germanium , while today the semiconductor silicon is predominantly used in both field effect transistors and bipolar transistors. The gradual replacement of germanium by silicon in the course of the 1960s and 1970s happened for the following reasons, among others (see thermal oxidation of silicon ):

  1. Silicon has a stable, non-conductive oxide (silicon dioxide), whereas germanium oxide is water-soluble, which among other things makes cleaning more complicated.
    • Silicon dioxide is suitable for the surface passivation of semiconductors, which means that the environment (contamination, surface charges, etc.) has a significantly less impact on the electrical properties of the components and is therefore more reproducible.
    • With the thermal oxidation of silicon, there was a simple manufacturing process of silicon dioxide on monocrystalline silicon. The resulting silicon-silicon dioxide interface shows a small number of interface charges, which, among other things, enabled the practical implementation of field effect transistors with insulated gates.
  2. Just like germanium, silicon is an element semiconductor . The extraction and handling of silicon is easier than that of germanium.

Other materials are used for special applications. Some compound semiconductors, such as the toxic gallium arsenide, have better properties for high-frequency applications, but are more expensive to manufacture and require different production facilities. In order to circumvent these practical disadvantages of gallium arsenide, there are various semiconductor combinations such as silicon germanium , which can be used for higher frequencies. For high-temperature applications, special semiconductor materials such as silicon carbide (SiC) are used to manufacture transistors . These transistors can be used, for example, directly on an internal combustion engine at temperatures of up to 600 ° C. For silicon-based semiconductors, the maximum operating temperature is in the range of 150 ° C.

Areas of application

Transistors are used in almost all electronic circuits today. Use as a single ( discrete ) component plays a minor role. Even in power electronics, more and more transistors are being manufactured on one substrate, mainly for cost reasons.

An older typing of transistors was based on the areas of application:

  • Small signal transistors - simple, uncooled transistors for analog audio technology for outputs of up to approx. 1 W.
  • Power transistors - robust, coolable transistors for powers above 1 W.
  • High-frequency transistors - transistors for frequencies above 100 kHz, at frequencies above 100 MHz, the external design is also implemented using stripline technology, for example
  • Switching transistors - transistors with a favorable ratio of forward to reverse current, in which the characteristic does not need to be particularly linear, in variants for small and for large powers. Bipolar transistors in the low power range with integrated ballast resistors are also known as digital transistors .

In the meantime, differentiation is made even more according to the application area. The standards have also shifted, the limit of 100 kHz for HF transistors would be set approximately 1000 times higher today.

Digital circuit technology

Based on the number of manufactured components, the main area of ​​application of transistors in digital technology is their use in integrated circuits , such as RAM memories , flash memories , microcontrollers , microprocessors and logic gates . There are highly integrated circuits with over 1 billion transistors on a substrate, which mostly consists of silicon and has an area of ​​a few square millimeters. The rate of increase in the number of components per integrated circuit, which was still growing exponentially in 2009, is also known as Moore's law . Each of these transistors is used as a type of electronic switch to switch a partial current in the circuit on or off. With this ever increasing number of transistors per chip, its storage capacity or its functional diversity increases, as more and more activities can be processed in parallel in several processor cores in modern microprocessors, for example . All of this primarily increases the speed of work; but because the individual transistors within the chips are getting smaller and smaller, their respective energy consumption also decreases, so that the chips as a whole are also becoming more and more energy-efficient (in relation to work performance).

The size of the transistors (gate length) in highly integrated chips is often only a few nanometers in 2009. For example, the gate length of the processors, which were manufactured using what is known as 45 nm technology , is only around 21 nm; The 45 nm in 45 nm technology relate to the size of the smallest lithographically producible structure, so-called feature size , which is usually the lowest metal contact with the drain-source regions. The semiconductor companies are pushing this downsizing, so Intel presented the new 32 nm test chips in December 2009. In addition to the area of ​​microprocessors and memory, graphics processors and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are at the forefront of ever smaller structure sizes .

The following table shows the number of transistors and technology nodes used on some different microchips as an example :

Microchip Number of

Year of development
Intel 4004 2,300 10,000 nm 1971
Intel Pentium (P5) 3,100,000 800 nm 1993
Intel Core 2 (Yorkfield) per Die 410,000,000 45 nm 2007
Intel Itanium 2 Tukwila 2,046,000,000 65 nm 2010
AMD Tahiti XT 4,312,711,873 28 nm 2011
Nvidia Kepler GK110 7,100,000,000 28 nm 2012
AMD Epyc - 32-core processor 19,200,000,000 14 nm 2017

Analog circuit technology

In analog circuit technology, both bipolar transistors and field effect transistors are used in circuits such as operational amplifiers , signal generators or as a high-precision reference voltage source . Analog-to-digital converters and digital-to-analog converters act as interfaces to digital applications . The circuits are much smaller in scope. The number of transistors per chip range from a few 100 to a few 10,000 transistors.

In transistor circuits for signal processing such as preamplifiers , noise is a major disturbance variable. The thermal noise , the shot noise and the 1 / f noise play a role. In the case of the MOS field effect transistor, the 1 / f noise is particularly high even below approx. 1 MHz. The different noise behavior also determines the possible areas of application of the transistor types, for example in low-frequency amplifiers or in special low-noise high - frequency converters .

In analog circuit technology, discrete transistors of different types are still used today and connected to other electronic components on printed circuit boards , so there are as yet no ready-made integrated circuits or circuit parts for these requirements. Another area of ​​application for the use of discrete transistor circuits is in the qualitatively higher segment of audio technology .

Power electronics

Power transistor type 2N3055 in TO-3 Enclosures, by a mica washer , electrically insulated on an aluminum - heat sink screwed

Transistors are used in different areas of power electronics. In the area of power amplifiers , they can be found in power amplifiers . In the area of regulated power supplies as in switching power supplies find power MOSFETs or IGBTs application - they are there as an inverter and synchronous rectifier used. IGBT and power MOSFETs are increasingly penetrating areas that were previously reserved for larger thyristors , e.g. in inverters or motor controls. The advantage of power transistors over thyristors is the ability to switch transistors on or off at any time. Conventional thyristors can be switched on (ignited) at any time, but cannot be switched off again or only with additional circuit complexity. A fact that is particularly disadvantageous in DC voltage applications.

Due to the power losses occurring in power electronics, larger transistor housings such as TO-220 or TO-3 are usually used , which also enable a good thermal connection to heat sinks .

Housing and appearance

Transistors normally have 3 connections, which are typically only led out parallel to one side of the housing in the form of wires, pins, and metal sheets. However, the soldering surfaces on SMD housings are at least on two sides of the contour. In particular with power transistors that are firmly screwed to a cooling surface, the metal part to be screwed also leads out electrically to one of the 3 transistor poles, so that only two (further) poles are used as pins or the like. can be found. On the other hand, if 4 wires come out of the housing, one of them can have the function "S" shield / shield. If a housing contains several transistors - cf. Darlington transistor - bring out a corresponding number of contacts.

There are individually selected pairs of specimens with properties that are as similar as possible for installation in correspondingly sophisticated circuits. There are also so-called complementary pairs (types) with similar properties, but with reversed polarity, i.e. an npn and a pnp type.

The inside u. U. filigree structure of the component is held and at the same time enclosed by a comparatively robust housing.

Tasks of the housing and the supply lines in general:

  • Closing as tight as possible:
    • gastight against the ingress of oxygen and other chemical-physical reagents in order to create the most inert and clean environment possible for the highly pure semiconductor substances. Semiconductors can also be coated with insulating layers.
    • light tight
    • shield against ionizing radiation (especially important in high-altitude flight, space travel, radioactive hot environment)
    • electric and magnetic (alternating) fields
  • Low heat flow resistance for the heat produced in the semiconductor (and its supply lines) during operation towards the heat sink as a heat sink. Housings are typically filled with silicone thermal paste.
  • lateral dissipation of heat arriving via the electrical contacts during a soldering process. Small germanium transistors are sometimes equipped with thin connecting wires made of iron, which conduct heat - but also electrical current - more poorly than copper.
  • Conducting electrical currents with a low voltage drop and low heat generation (Joule heat).

In the special case of the photo transistor as a sensor, light should be able to penetrate into the semiconductor itself.

Housing shell materials:

  • Glass, blown, painted black
  • Aluminum sheet, deep drawn
  • Sheets made of copper materials (thin dome over thick, perforated plate), galvanized, soldered or welded
  • Thermoset

Embedding the contacts:

  • Glass
  • adhesive
  • Thermoset
  • Ceramics


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Web links

Commons : Transistors  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Transistor  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on August 21, 2009 .