The invention of the transistor is arguably the most important electronic event of the 20th century, as it made possible the integrated circuit (microchip) and microprocessor that are the basis of all modern electronics.
In its September 1948 issue, Popular Science magazine announced that “for the first time since its invention 41 years ago, the vacuum tube has a rival.” One transistor was equal to 40 vacuum tubes! It was smaller, cheaper to produce, more reliable, gave off virtually no heat, and required less power while conducting electricity faster and more efficiently. The name is a combination of the words “transfer” and “resistor,” creating “transistor.”
John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, in January 1948, came up with the idea of the point-contact transistor. They made the first transistor of two gold foil contacts sitting on a germanium crystal. However, it would be the design method of choice for the production of the transistor for only 6 years.
William Shockley, who had worked with Drs. Bardeen and Brattain at Bell Laboratories on the project in the 40s (actually, he was their boss) was angered that he was not included in their patent application (because Bell’s attorneys had found that Shockley’s contribution, the almost identical “FET-like” (field effect) transmitter, had already been patented by Julius Lilienfeld on January 28, 1930). Shockley was furious, but subsequently forged ahead with his theory on the junction transistor and received his own patent for it. Essentially, he had improved on their earlier work, with “sandwiches” of N-and P-type germanium.
Although Shockley could not be included on the original patent, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in Physics in 1956 for the invention of the transistor. An interesting historical sidelight is that it was a telephone company, Marconi, which played a major part in the invention and development of the vacuum tube in 1905—and forty-two years later it would be yet another telephone company, Bell Laboratories, that would conceive of the vacuum tube’s replacement with the transistor.
Because there were problems with germanium’s sensitivity to temperature, its usefulness was limited. The pioneering work of Morris Tanenbaum, Gordon Teal and Morgan Sparks in 1954 ultimately led to the development of silicon as the best conducting material with the junction transistor, revolutionizing the transistor industry.
Today, many millions of transistors are manufactured weekly. Due to their small size, high resistances to electricity, and low cost, transistors are present in virtually every piece of advanced technology from portable radios to pacemakers to manned space flight. The technology developed by Tanenbaum, Teal, and Sparks was later used by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce in their invention of the microchip, which in turn, initiated the “Silicon Age.”
When Bardeen was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics in 1956 in Sweden, he was jokingly admonished by King Gustav because only one of his three children were present at the ceremony. Bardeen quipped that next time he won, he would bring all three. In 1972, Bardeen was again awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics—the only person ever in history to receive two in that field—for his theory on superconductivity. This time, of course, at the awards ceremony in Stockholm, all three of his children were present.