The chip came off this old block

Proceedings of the IEEE
June 26, 1998

The transistor is unquestionably one of the most important technological artefacts to appear in the 20th century. Along with aeroplanes, television and perhaps the atomic bomb, it has had profound impact on the way people conduct their lives in modern societies. Without this tiny semiconductor amplifier and switch, microchips would not exist - nor would personal computers, cellular phones, satellite communications and the Internet. It can truly be called the nerve cell of the information age.

Invented in December 1947 at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the transistor recently turned 50. Its golden anniversary was marked by the appearance of many newspaper and magazine articles plus a few books. As this diminutive electronic device has since become central to its core professional practices, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers devoted an entire issue of its monthly journal to celebrate the anniversary. This special issue presents some 30 articles on the transistor - plus its antecedents and progeny - written in a few cases by men who played key roles in the resulting technological revolution.

What results, however, is an uneven admixture - strong on technical details and weak on the scientific roots and cultural impacts of the transistor. None of the editors has any significant credentials as a historian. Curiously, the three of them graduated together from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1972, the transistor's silver anniversary.

The issue opens with an article on "The invention of the transistor" by Ian Ross, who joined Bell Labs in 1952 and worked on transistor development for the next decade, eventually becoming president of this world-renowned research institute. His treatment of what he terms the "scientific phase" of the invention is cursory, a compilation of official, well-worn observations. He fares better in his coverage of the device's development from a laboratory curiosity into useful commercial products - an evolutionary process in which he was a major contributor with first-hand knowledge of the important events. Ross concludes with a perceptive discussion of the factors that encouraged this solid-state revolution to erupt.

The editors have reprinted a few of the important scientific papers here, including John Bardeen and Walter Brattain's two letters in the July 15 1948 issue of Physical Review announcing their breakthrough invention of the point-contact transistor. There are also patents of William Shockley, leader of their group at Bell Labs, who conceived his own peculiar kind of semiconductor amplifier - based in part on Bardeen and Brattain's approach - a month after their ground-breaking achievement. As Shockley bragged, his junction transistor was "the first technologically important device of the solid-state era". It was this device that, after almost a decade of development, began finding its way into hearing aids, transistor radios and computers during the 1950s. And it spawned the integrated circuit, or microchip, and led to the rise of Silicon Valley.

But one of the editors, Probir Bondyopadhyay, seizes this opportunity to laud Shockley's contributions while attempting to belittle Bardeen's. In an article that purports to be a detailed analysis of their laboratory notebooks, he contends that on January 23, 1948, Shockley "made a revolutionary theoretical invention" based on "his revolutionary new concept of minority carrier injection". This is the idea that electrons can successfully percolate across a thin layer of semiconductor material teeming with oppositely charged, quantum-mechanical vacancies called "holes" without being gobbled up in transit. Such a phenomenon, which was not entirely obvious in early 1948, was necessary for Shockley's junction transistor idea to function at all. "Why that creative explosion did not originate in Bardeen's mind" is the subject of Bondyopadhyay's paper.

Here is where the editors would have benefited from a greater familiarity with the scientific literature. For a remarkably similar idea occurred a decade earlier to the Russian physicist Boris Davydov, who in 1938 published an obscure paper on the subject. During the 1940s its English translation circulated among a new breed of "solid-state" physicists. One of them was Bardeen, who recognised in early December 1947 that these holes can trickle along a narrow surface layer on a semiconductor slab dominated by free electrons. Shockley deserves credit for understanding that electrons and holes can also survive briefly while nudging intimately past one another - and for realising that this behaviour could lead to a much improved transistor design. That was one of Shockley's crucial strengths: using established and speculative theories in the creation of innovative devices. But such a contribution is hardly deserving of all the glowing superlatives Bondyopadhyay heaps on him.

Much of the remainder of the issue is devoted to the microchip and the $150 billion semiconductor industry that has emerged around it. In a revealing article, Intel's co-founder Gordon Moore takes readers behind the scenes at the Fairchild Semiconductor Company - the first truly successful semiconductor company in what became Silicon Valley. Now no longer in existence, this start-up became the Bell Labs of the Valley, developing much of the "planar" silicon technology still widely used in microchip manufacturing by semiconductor firms worldwide. And in his "Two communications revolutions," Jay Last, another Fairchild pioneer, writes eloquently about the striking parallels between the invention of the transistor and microchip and Johann Gutenberg's invention of moveable type five centuries earlier. This is the one article in the entire issue that really addresses the vast cultural impacts the transistor has had on our everyday lives.

Adding to this chorus is an article by Bondyopadhyay on Shockley's role in the origins of the microchip. He indeed founded the first semiconductor firm in the Valley, hiring a group of talented scientists and engineers - among them Moore and Last - eight of whom resigned en masse in September 1957 to found Fairchild. But Bondyopadhyay carries his adulation much too far in claiming that a Shockley patent on a "Semiconductor shift register" "is the first patent describing the dawn of the monolithic idea in the evolution process of monolithic integrated circuits".

This is patently absurd. A similar idea was on the minds of plenty of other semiconductor researchers during the 1950s, culminating in the invention of the integrated circuit at the end of the decade by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Fairchild's Robert Noyce. Shockley and the loyalists remaining in his Palo Alto firm did not really work on true integrated circuits. They tried instead to develop what he dubbed "compositional structures" - and Bell Labs called "functional devices" - like his semiconductor shift register. But this approach proved to be mostly a technological dead-end once integrated circuits gained prominence in the 1960s.

The final quarter of this special issue is devoted to the contributions of Jagadish Chandra Bose, a turn-of-the-century Indian physicist who earned his doctorate in Britain and continued his studies of electromagnetic radiation on returning to India. Based on what is presented here, it seems fair to conclude that Bose made several important contributions to the physical understanding of the interaction between radiation and matter. But Bondyopadhyay extends his praise much further, arguing that Bose was the sole inventor of the crystal rectifier, a solid-state device used in the detection of weak radio signals in the early days of wireless communications. (It was also the antecedent of the transistor, for second world war research on crystal rectifiers needed in radar receivers proved crucial for this invention.) "It is deplorable," he laments, "that Bose's pioneering work is not even mentioned in the books and articles written and still being written by incompetent historians of science and technology."

Bondyopadhyay claims to have turned up "incontrovertible evidence" that Guglielmo Marconi and his colleagues used Bose's invention to detect the feeble radio signals of their first transatlantic wireless transmissions. He suggests that Marconi was an "intellectual thief" who went on to obtain a patent on this Italian Navy coherer, as it was called. This device, he argues, was actually a "trivially modified version" of Bose's original conception.

Such extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, which is not given here. Instead we find many pages of speculation and circumstantial evidence trying to establish a link between Bose's scientific publications of the late 1890s and the device Marconi used to detect radio signals. While Bose's physics research may indeed have influenced certain aspects of its design, this is still a far cry from establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that Marconi was a thief.

Despite such severe flaws, however, this special issue will prove worthwhile reading for those interested in the history of science and technology. But readers should be wary of the biases of its editors and recognise that there are other, more valid interpretations of these historic events.

Michael Riordan is a physicist at Stanford University, a science historian and co-author of Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age.

Proceedings of the IEEE: 50th Anniversary of the Transistor

Editor - P. K. Bondyopadhyay, P. K. Chatterjee and U. Chakrabart
ISBN - ISSN 0018 9219
Publisher - None
Price - $10 (IEEE members) and $20 (non-members)
Pages - -

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments