Engines of Our Ingenuity


by Fitz Walker

Today, a small item creates a large impact. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

At the end of the last century there was much talk about the best inventions of the twentieth century. TV, internet, airplanes all ranked high in the pontification of media pundits. I don't recall any consensus being made at the time. But, I do remember my thoughts of what should have been that number one invention: the transistor.

It's hard to think of any other device that impacts so much of our lives. Without transistors, we would not have compact personal electronics, smart phones, smart appliances, or smart anything. A personal computer would be unthinkably huge. And forget about putting a cell phone in your pocket. Transistors form the building blocks of computer chips and are part of all modern electronic devices. Our advanced society is owed to this tiny, overlooked piece of technology.

Replica of first transistor
Replica of first transistor.

Before transistors, we had to use vacuum tubes to control electrical circuits. Vacuum tubes are large, inefficient, and wear out after a short period of time. These qualities make them impractical for small and complicated devices. Transistors can do the same job in a much smaller package and do it all without wearing out.

The transistor owes its creation to three Bell Laboratory scientists: John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain. They were tasked with solving a problem. The massive growth in the use of telephones required efficient and reliable electronic voice amplifiers.

So William Shockley gathered a team of scientists to experiment with new materials called semi-conductors — so called because their electrical properties are between that of an insulator and conductor. Semi-conductors had first seen extensive use in World War II radar systems. Shockley’s team decided to see if they could use these unique properties to build a better amplifier.

Their experiments in 1947 produced a crude electronic device made with a germanium crystal and gold. This odd device made it possible to control a large amount of power with just a small power input. It was primitive and not very small, but it worked. Shockley went on to personally perfect the design from the crude and cranky version first developed by his team. By the 1950’s, transistors were being mass produced and would go on to revolutionize the world.

Inventors of the transistor
Inventors of the transistor John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain.

Transistors were not an instant hit. The early years were plagued with expensive production costs and marginally useful qualities. For nearly twenty years, the majority of transistor production went to the military. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that transistors were cheap and reliable enough to take the consumer market by storm.

Their first real improvement was by a little known company called Texas Instruments. They developed the use of cheaper Silicon instead of Germanium. And then they would go on to develop the first highly compact transistor packages called integrated circuits. These were the first computer chips. Transistors have since transformed and evolved into so many forms as to probably be unrecognizable by its inventors were they alive now.

modern computer chip
Modern computer chips can contain around 500 million transistors.

As for William Shockley, the father of the transistor, he left Bell Labs to start his own company in Palo Alto California. His company would be the first in the hi-tech corridor we know today as Silicon Valley.

I’m Fitz Walker on behalf of the University of Houston, interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

First two images are curtsey commons.wikimedia.org and the last image is courtesy of Fitz Walker.

Kragh, Helge. Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century. Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.



This episode was first aired on May 23, 2012

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.