"Those of us who design logic gates for computers seldom reminisce on how the terms we use to describe technology came into use. The vision of a gate swinging back and forth clearly does not literally represent the structures on a silicon chip. But the reason for the usage of the term 'gate' for computer logic can be appreciated by examining the basic function of a gate: to control a flow.
"On a farm, gates may be used to control the 'flow' of sheep or goats between pens. In this case, the gate consists of a physical barrier whose position is controlled by a farmer. The farmer makes a decision about the flow of animals and then moves the physical barrier to permit the desired flow.
"In a computer, a gate controls the flow of electric current through a circuit. The gate consists of transistors; the transistors are selected by the chip designer from two basic types (PMOS and NMOS transistors) that are found in the ubiquitous CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology. The current that flows through a gate establishes a voltage at a particular point in the circuit. This voltage represents a single 'bit' of information. The voltage may either be high (representing the value '1') or low (representing the value '0').
"To establish a 1 on a circuit, the current flow is steered to the circuit (controlled) by 'turning on' a PMOS transistor connected between the circuit and the positive supply voltage. The supply voltage is usually an industry-standard value such as 3.3 or 5.0 volts. For the very brief interval that is required for a logic gate to switch (on the order of a nanosecond, or a billionth of a second), current will flow through a PMOS transistor from the positive power supply to the circuit.
"The current flow that charges the circuit node to a 0 is steered away from the circuit through a different kind of transistor (NMOS) connected between the circuit and the negative supply voltage, or electrical ground. Again, current will flow through the NMOS transistor for a very brief interval, but for the NMOS the current is between the circuit and the negative supply. In either case, the current flow results in a change in the circuit voltage, and the circuit voltage represents a bit of information. So, when a gate is controlling current flow, it is actually controlling the flow of information.
"Returning to the analogy between the farm and the computer chip, it is obvious that the flow is different (farm animals compared to information) and that the gate itself is different (a physical barrier compared to a transistor in the CMOS technology). But the most important difference is the means of controlling the flow. On the farm, the farmer resets the gate location by making a decision and then moving a physical barrier. A flow of animals through a complex maze of gates would require a farm hand at each gate.
"But in a computer chip, the control mechanism is the voltage on the control terminal of a transistor. This voltage turns on a transistor by changing its characteristics from that of an open circuit (the 'off' position) to one that can conduct a small current. This control voltage, in turn, is already available within the chip as a voltage at a point on another circuit. And, being a voltage on a circuit, this control mechanism represents a different bit of information.
"The overwhelming computing power of logic gates stems from the fact that the output of any particular gate is a voltage, which can in turn be used to control another gate. A computer chip therefore can be designed to make complex decisions about the information flow within itself. This ability enables sophisticated systems to be created by interconnecting as many as a million gates within a single chip. All of this with no farm hands and no moving parts."
Tak Ning of the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center adds some complementary details:
"A logic gate in a microchip is made up of a specific arrangement of transistors. For modern microchips, the transistors are of the kind called Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor Field-Effect Transistor (MOSFET), and the semiconductor used is silicon. A MOSFET has three components, or regions: a source region, a drain region and a channel region having a gate over it. The three regions are arranged horizontally adjacent to one another, with the channel region in the middle.
"In a logic-gate arrangement, each of the MOSFETs works like a switch. The switch is closed, or the MOSFET is turned on, if electric current can flow readily from the source to the drain. The switch is open, or the MOSFET is turned off, if electric current cannot flow from the source to the drain.
"The source and drain regions of a MOSFET are fabricated to be full of electrons which are ready to carry current. The channel region, on the other hand, is designed to be empty of electrons under normal condition, blocking the movement of current. Hence, under normal condition, the MOSFET is 'off' (or 'open') and no current can flow from the source to the drain.
"If a positive voltage is applied to the gate (which sits on top of the channel region), then electrons, which are negative charges, will be attracted toward the gate. These electrons are collected in the channel region of the MOSFET. The larger the gate voltage, the larger is the concentration of electrons in the channel region. The substantial concentration of electrons in the channel provides a path by which the electrons can move easily from the source to the drain. When that happens, the MOSFET is 'on' (or 'closed') and current can flow from the source to the drain freely.
"In summary, a MOSFET in a microchip is turned on by applying a voltage to the gate to attract electrons to the channel region, and turned off by applying a voltage to the gate to repel electrons away from the channel region. There is movement of charges in the silicon, but there are no mechanical moving parts involved."