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A device that changed the world
celebrated 60 years in 2008

Six decades ago three men invented a device that has had far reaching effects on all our lives. On Christmas Eve, 1947, these Americans demonstrated the transistor to their bosses at Bell Laboratories. But the inventors kept the new device a secret for a few months as they worked out how to make the most of it. When they did announce their invention on June 26, 1948, few realised its significance.

Indeed, these three pioneers probably never imagined just how important their invention would become. No matter where you are at this moment and no matter what you are doing, you are, at most, only a few metres from a direct descendant of that first transistor, be it in a radio, television, computer of electronic wristwatch.

Almost every piece of equipment that stores, transmits, displays or manipulates information has, at its core, silicon micro-chips filled with electronic circuitry. Today, each chip houses many thousands or even millions of transistors, and they continue to increase in power and come down in price.

Lee de Forest, inventor of the amplifying vacuum tube holds an Audion tube, forerunner of the radio valve.

In the early days of radio, receivers were unable to detect signals over long distances or through physical barriers such as buildings. Crystal sets were used to pick up the signals but had no means of amplification so listeners wore headphones to hear the broadcast.

A different approach was suggested by English physicist John Fleming, making use of Thomas Edison’s recent invention of the vacuum light bulb. Fleming fitted two electrodes to a light bulb and attached it to a radio receiving system. This was the first vacuum tube.

This tube was improved in 1906 by the American Lee de Forest, who invented the amplifying vacuum tube and it seemed this technology would become the mainstay of the electronics industry.

The first significant computer, ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator), was built at Pennsylvania University in 1946. It had 18,000 vacuum tubes but they were fragile, and used a lot of power. But ENIAC could perform 5000 additions, 357 multiplications or 38 divisions in one second.

William Shockley
John Bardeen
Walter Brattain

Back in 1939 the young William Shockley had speculated that, instead of trying to improve the vacuum tube, it would be better to return to the thinking underpinning the crystal set - ie. some form of semiconductor. His research was halted by the onset of World War II.

As soon as the war ended, Shockley returned to the semiconductor research. He had the theory but could not put it into practice. John Bardeen and Walter Brattain were called in to work out the engineering side.

Nobel Laureates William Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen pictured in 1948, the year their invention was unveiled.

They did it in only two years culminating in their success in December 1947. Working at Bell Laboratories, the research arm of the giant American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) company (now Lucent Technologies), they fell out over who should be acknowledged for the discovery. Shockley thought he should get all the credit but the two engineers felt they deserved some as well.

The engineers applied for one patent on June 17, 1948 while on June 26, 1948, Shockley filed a patent for a different version of the transistor. No-one at the time, even IBM, had any idea of the potential for this newly discovered device. The term “transistor” was used from the very first (a new word made up of “transfer” and “resistor”).

In September 1951, Bell held a “Transistor Symposium” and offered to license the technology to anyone willing to pay a fee of US$25,000. This was the beginning of the transistor industry.

Among the early customers were General Electric, IBM, a new company called Texas Instruments and the then small Japanese company that was to become Sony Electronics. By then they could all see how this invention could benefit their industries.

The first commercially available consumer product was a hearing aid, a device that benefited greatly from miniaturisation and long battery life. Bell Labs waived the patent royalties for transistorised hearing aids in honour of Alexander Graham Bell who had been a life long advocate for the hearing impaired.

In December 1954, just in time for Christmas, the first commercially produced transistor radio reached the market. It sold for US$49.95 and is now a collectors item worth more than US$300.

The Nobel Prize Committee awarded all three inventors the Physics Prize in 1956 “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”. In only eight years it had become clear that a new era of electronics was emerging thanks to this invention.

But by then, all three men had gone their separate ways.

Having helped invent the transistor, Shockley stayed in the industry, continually making improvements so that the original invention became cheaper, lighter in weight and smaller in size.

He left Bell Labs in 1955 and served as a visiting professor and consultant. He became Professor of Engineering at Stanford University, California in 1963, where he stayed until 1975.

He was one of the fathers of nearby Silicon Valley, California and of the flourishing computer industry. He died in 1989.

From article in “The Daily Telegraph”, June 26, 2008 by Keith Suter.
Contributed by Alan Stuckey.

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