In the late 1950s, a wide-ranging debate erupted over the seemingly innocuous question of how transistors—the revolutionary new electronic devices—should be drawn. By forcing a break in the long-standing traditions of electronic drawing, transistors generated a crisis in the ontology of circuit diagrams, forcing a choice between representations that emphasized form and those that stressed function. This paper explores what was at stake in that mid-century debate over visual culture. It tracks one function-based symbol through concerns about auto-comprehension, visual communication, and electronic reliability to see how transistor symbols formed crucial sites for articulating the meanings of material devices and their relationship to the wider populations of electronic entities, especially vacuum tubes. In doing so, the article shifts the emphasis in the history of electronics from material to visual culture, recasting our understanding of postwar electronics as a history of drawings as well as devices.

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