A history of the transistor at 75

The future began 75 years ago this week with the invention of something small that is considered the most manufactured object in human history. Chances are you are surrounded by them right now.

The Transistor was born in December 1947, in New Jersey, and he defined the last half of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st. We explore the cultures of innovation that brought us the device that changed everything.

Take a look around the room. You’d be hard-pressed to find a handy gadget or gadget that doesn’t contain a transistor. Just about everything electronic is full of them.

Our world of information and communications owes a debt to a team of physicists who took theories that had been lying around for decades and – after years of false starts and dead ends – got the first transistor working at the start of the ‘after war.

Walter Brattain and John Bardeen of Bell Telephone Laboratories were responsible.

In this video, brattain bed from page 197 of his original lab notebook, talking about a demonstration they did for older colleagues. “This circuit was actually talked about. And by turning the device on and off, a distinct gain in speech level could be heard and seen on the oscilloscope presentation with no noticeable change in quality.

Three physicists in shirts and ties in Bell Laboratories in 1948. There is a microscope in the middle of the photo pointed at a transistor.
Standing, from left, are Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in 1948. Their director, William Shockley, is seated between them. The three won the Nobel Prize in 1956 for their work on the transistor. (Nokia USA Inc. and AT&T Archives)

This transistor was a device that used a shard of rock: germanium, an element that is not an electrical conductor like copper, nor an insulator like rubber. It’s something in between – a semiconductor.

Brattain and Bardeen’s supervisor, William Shockley, was so mad he himself failed to realize that in a convulsion of creativity just a month later, Shockley dreamed up an improved, easier-to-manufacture version of the transistor. . All three would win the Nobel Prize for these innovations.

“It enabled this global civilization,” said Michael Riordan, physicist and historian of science. He is co-author with Lillian Hoddeson of “Crystal Fire: the invention of the transistor and the birth of the information age,widely regarded as the definitive history of the transistor.

“I would put it on the [same] level than fire, in terms of importance to what modern life is today,” Riordan said.

There is almost magic in the transistor. There are no moving parts. If you don’t have germanium, you can craft some from sand. (We’ll get to the silicon revolution later in this series.) It continues to be made smaller and smaller but still works. It doesn’t use a lot of energy. Yet he is responsible for so many things.

“I don’t think you could have had the lunar mission without those microchips,” Riordan said. “And I think that’s one of the main reasons the United States was the first to go to the moon. The Soviet Union didn’t have a microchip industry in the 1960s.”

The first transistor sits on a small pedestal in a Nokia Bell Labs showroom.
The first transistor, developed by Walter Brattain and John Bardeen, was made of germanium, a semiconductor, (is germanium the semiconductor in this use?) gold, a raw spring and a metal base. (Nokia USA Inc. and AT&T Archives)

So the transistor is up there with firebending, but what exactly is a transistor? What does it do?

Initially, two things. First, it acts like a little switch, like the flipper of a pinball machine. When the ball rolls – this is the electrical signal – the transistor can either pass it through or turn it over. Open or closed. A zero or a 1, the essence of what was to become the digital revolution.

Second, a transistor acts as a sort of cattle prod, amplifying a signal to be stronger. If engineers could figure out how to mass-produce them, they could replace the bulky, flimsy glass tubes that heated the insides of earlier electronic devices. That was the challenge.

What followed was… pretty much everything: a radio the size of a deck of cards. Satellites. Computers everywhere. Movies on your cell phone. E-commerce. The collapse of newspapers. Addiction to social media.

We look at the ecosystems that drive innovation forward. A starting point is the ecosystem that spawned the transistor: Bell Labs.

We wanted to know more about where the physicists who passed it were employed. Yes, it was the telephone company. And yes, back then you just called it the “telephone company” because there was only one: the mother of them all, AT&T.

A plaque on the wall of Nokia Bell Labs that commemorates the invention of the first transistor.
A plaque at the current Nokia Bell Labs. (Alex Schroeder/Market)

Besides the transistor, Bell Telephone Laboratories had the resources and know-how to produce the solar cell, the laser, the communications satellite, the charge-coupled camera chip used in digital imaging, and the cellular telephone system. . And they were able to, in part, because of the phone bills your parents and grandparents paid.

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