Happy birthday, transistor

The first working version powered up 65 years ago


Nobel team

Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain won the Nobel Prize for Physics “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect” in 1956, almost two years after their work resulted in the release of the first transistor radio.

Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain

From Bell to Nobel: Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain

These early transistors were used primarily to amplify an analog signal, which they were better able to achieve - certainly in a much smaller space - than circuits based on thermionic valves. Only much later, after Jack Kilby (1923-2005) and Robert Noyce (1927-1990) combined transistors into the first integrated circuit chip, in 1958, did the potential in the transistor's ability to operate as a switch begin to be realised.

Transistors operating as current switches could be combined to form logic gates and when they were, the basic foundations of modern digital circuitry were born. Put a number of these gates together into an integrated circuit and you have the basis for a computer. Put enough of them together and you have a microprocessor, which Intel released in 1971 as the 2300-transistor 4004.

These days, processors contain hundreds of millions of transistors, making up their maths units, control systems and on-board memory banks.

The Transistor's Real Inventor?

Years before the work of Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain, German physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld (1881-1963) obtained three US patents that covered the principles on which the field-effect transistor operates. A few years later, fellow German physicist Oskar Heil (1908-1994) was granted a field-effect device patent of his own. Should Lilienfeld and Heil be credited as the fathers of the transistor?

Heil's patent was granted in the UK on 6 December 1935 and derived from an application made on 4 March the previous year, in Germany and in Britain, where Heil was working. Lilienfeld's first patent - “Method and Apparatus for Controlling Electric Currents” - was granted in the US on 28 January 1930, four years after it was filed, on 8 October 1926. Lilienfeld's second patent - “Device for Controlling Electric Current” - was filed on 28 March 1928 and granted on 7 March 1933.

Lilienfeld’s devices have since been made and show to work as he predicted, but it’s not known whether he himself made one. Or Heil, for that matter. We'll probably never know if they did, which leaves Bardeen and Brattain credited as the men who made the first working transistor.

They applied for patent to protect their discovery on 17 June 1948. It was granted on 3 October 1950.

Lilienfeld's transistor

Lilienfeld’s field-effect transistor

It has been claimed that Shockley, for one, was aware of Lilienfeld’s work, and built a working version of a Lilienfeld transistor. However, Shockley never referred to either Heil or Lilienfeld’s work in his own research papers.

And then there are German physicists Herbert Mataré (1912-2011) and Heinrich Welker (1912-1981), who created a point-contact transistor of their own during 1948. By June of that year, they had begun to obtain consistent amplification - only to learn, a month later, that Bell Labs’ team had beaten them to it some six months previously.

That didn't stop them putting their “transistron” into production, but like Bardeen and Brattain’s design, it would soon be superseded by Shockley’s junction transistor. ®

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