Transistoring to the Digital Age

Today’s featured invention brings me back to my youth.  To a time when I spent countless hours in the driveway shooting hoops – sometimes by myself, sometimes with family, sometimes with friends.  But no matter who, if anyone, I was playing with, there was one person that almost seemed to be present:  Bob Uecker.  Uecker would describe to me over the radio how all of my favorite Brewers – Molitor, Yount, Coop, Vuke, Gumby, and all the rest – were doing.  It was a great way to fill time on a warm summer night, and I can still look back fondly at it all these years later.

I distinctly remember the first radio I had out there – my Dad’s transistor.  It was small and black and fit perfectly on a ledge on the wall by the driveway.  Occasionally a stray shot would bounce into it, knocking it off the ledge, but that thing was sturdy.  No matter how many times it fell off onto the concrete, it survived, much to my relief.  But what was this technology that allowed me to have these fond memories (besides the ball and hoop)?  It was the transistor, which has been called by some “The most important invention of the 20th century”, and that is why it is this week’s featured invention.

The transistor was patented on October 3, 1950, by Bill Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen (sort of, as you shall see).  The history of the transistor, though, goes back much further than that.  It started with the business battles in the early 1900s between telephone company rivals.  AT&T was looking for a better way to provide service and came up with the vacuum tube.  The vacuum initially served them well, as it allowed for transcontinental telephone service.  However, the tubes were also unreliable and used lots of power.  So, AT&T and its research arm, Bell Laboratories, continued to look for ways to upgrade, and that brought them to the idea of semiconductors.

At the end of WWII, work began in earnest on this new idea.  A team was assembled, with Shockley as the team leader.  Brattain and Bardeen were brought on (Brattain from Bell Labs, Bardeen from the University of Minnesota) for their technical expertise.  It was a brilliant group that showed almost immediate results, but a rivalry also developed among them.  Most notably, in the spring of 1945, Shockley developed what he believed was the first semi-conductor amplifier.  Brattain and Bardeen, on the other hand, had been working together, and their research took them in another direction.  In late 1947, they developed the first functioning transistor without Shockley, who apparently was furious at being left out, so he decided to one up them by creating a different version of the transistor.  The problem, as he would find out later, was that somebody named Julius Lilienfeld had filed for a patent with many of the same ideas in the 1930s.

Thus there were inventions and counter-inventions among the group, and ultimately it led to the filing of four patent applications.  Two were successful.  Shockley received one for related but different work (patent #2569347), Bardeen and Brattain for the transistor (patent #2524035).  But as much as I liked our old transistor radio, the real importance with the invention was how it would change the world of computers.

Not to overstate them, but essentially transistors completely changed the world of electronics.  Their invention led to the phasing out of vacuum tube.  Transistors were made of semiconductors, and they were able to do what the vacuum tubes had once done.  However, they could do it more cheaply and reliably, and they are much smaller.  Transistors are the amplifiers and switching devices of modern electronics.  The evolution of electronics using transistors began with a hearing aid that was released in 1952, followed by the transistor radio of 1953.  From there, with obvious updates and modifications, transistors have allowed us to move into the digital age of today.  Now because of them I can stream my Brewers on the computer (or go to US Patent Services to check out some of our fantastic products and deals), watch them on satellite TV, or, when the mood strikes, pull out the old radio and listen.