70 years since the silent and peaceful silicon revolution began and it still goes on…
Without the invention of the transistor technology, you would not be reading this, not having a smartphone and the Fortune500 would have a very different collection of companies.
(No Intel, Microsoft, Google, HP or Facebook). Mountain View (CA) would still be an anonymous suburb not associated with being the home of the largest companies in the world.
23rd of December 1947, just 2 years after the end of WW2, a new era dawned for mankind. While this may sound like big and ambiguous words for something that happened 70 years ago, it was a silent peacetime revolution that started there and then.
The world as we know it today would look very different without Dynamite and the TRANSISTOR. (I will come back to the Dynamite later). The official date for invention of the transistor is December 23: rd 1947, or at least it was officially demonstrated for the Bell Labs management at that day.
When the transistor was announced by Bell Labs June 30th 1948 for the gathered press no one really knew what it was. It just made it to page 46 in New York Time, the engineers at the time thought it was a nice device, but nothing that would replace the vacuum tube, history proved the naysayers wrong.
Despite the lack of publicity, the use of transistors quickly caught on, the reliability, low heat dissipation and small physical footprint paved its way to the success.
The idea of the transistor came from William Shockley, he dreamt of a semiconducting amplifier which would replace the vacuum tubes to be used as line amplifiers in transcontinental phone networks. Over a period at Bell Labs he experimented with various ideas but never managed to really get it to work. He gathered help from his talented assistants John Bardeen and Walter Brattain who also where deep involved into finding a solution. With some luck and a moment of inspiration they figured out where the problem was and managed to work around the obstacle and created a working prototype. The test device they built was submerged in liquid nitrogen and performed a small but measurable amplification. By doing further improvement and change of materials they managed to create a device that worked as a crude solid-state amplifier, though the looks of it is not like what we are used to now. Well….. if we in the unlikely event encounter ONE transistor.
Ironically William Shockley was not credited for the invention in the patent filing, partly since Bardeen and Brattain solved the problem in another way than Shockley originally devised. However, Shockley got his redress when he improved the construction of the transistor into something which it still resembles of today. The construction was called “junction transistor” and this is what was presented at the Press event at June 30th. The first version of the transistor was a fragile construction and it would be very expensive and hard to manufacture, therefore Shockley’s improvement was a second breakthrough. The electric schema symbol for the transistor still resembles of the junction construction of the transistor.
Enter Dynamite! Neither of the three became rich from the invention of the transistor, they were forced to sell the patent to Bell Labs for $1, but 1956 they received the one phone call from Sweden all scientist dream of. They were awarded the Nobel Prize “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”. The legacy of a Swedish inventor who on his own shaped the world now intersected with three men who also with an unimaginable magnitude changed the world. John Bardeen will also eventually be awarded a second Nobel Prize in 1972, thus making him the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes in Physics.
“for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”
William Shockley never got over not being credited with the first patent, in 1956 he left Bell Labs to move to Mountain View in California where he founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. He was a splendid talent spotter and attracted the best of the time to his laboratory. His leadership skills was not as good, so people begun to leave within a short time. After just a year 8 persons nicknamed “the treacherous eight” left Shockley Semiconductor and started the company Fairchild who pioneered with integrated circuits. Later on, two persons from “the treacherous eight” namely Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore (yes THAT Moores Law dude) left Fairchild to start another company named …. INTEL. Much can be said about Shockley’s leadership, but his move to California and Mountain View WAS the spark for what became Silicon Valley.
Now look around you and figure how much of it would exist without the “transconductance varistor”. You would literally not be reading this, I would probably have become a train engineer instead and the Fortune500 would have a whole other collection of companies. Heck! Even my Porsche 911 would be using carburetors and be a mess of relays and electrical faults 😉