A device that blocks current in one direction while letting current flow in another direction is called a diode. Diodes can be used in a number of ways. For example, a device that uses batteries often contains a diode that protects the device if you insert the batteries backward. The diode simply blocks any current from leaving the battery if it is reversed -- this protects the sensitive electronics in the device.
A semiconductor diode's behavior is not perfect, as shown in this graph:
When reverse-biased, an ideal diode would block all current. A real diode lets perhaps 10 microamps through -- not a lot, but still not perfect. And if you apply enough reverse voltage (V), the junction breaks down and lets current through. Usually, the breakdown voltage is a lot more voltage than the circuit will ever see, so it is irrelevant.
When forward-biased, there is a small amount of voltage necessary to get the diode going. In silicon, this voltage is about 0.7 volts. This voltage is needed to start the hole-electron combination process at the junction.
Another monumental technology that's related to the diode is the transistor. Transistors and diodes have a lot in common.
A transistor is created by using three layers rather than the two layers used in a diode. You can create either an NPN or a PNP sandwich. A transistor can act as a switch or an amplifier.
A transistor looks like two diodes back-to-back. You'd imagine that no current could flow through a transistor because back-to-back diodes would block current both ways. And this is true. However, when you apply a small current to the center layer of the sandwich, a much larger current can flow through the sandwich as a whole. This gives a transistor its switching behavior. A small current can turn a larger current on and off.
A silicon chip is a piece of silicon that can hold thousands of transistors. With transistors acting as switches, you can create Boolean gates, and with Boolean gates you can create microprocessor chips.
The natural progression from silicon to doped silicon to transistors to chips is what has made microprocessors and other electronic devices so inexpensive and ubiquitous in today's society. The fundamental principles are surprisingly simple. The miracle is the constant refinement of those principles to the point where, today, tens of millions of transistors can be inexpensively formed onto a single chip.
For more information on semiconductors, diodes, chips and more, check out the links on the next page.