by Stephanie Overby

History of the Transistor, in Everything from MP3s to the International Space Station

Nov 15, 20012 mins
Data Center

“NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM TUBE,” the saying went. Ever since the vacuum tube’s introduction in 1906 (see “Cool Tube,” Jan. 15, 2000), people sought to improve the unwieldy, power-sucking signal amplifiers. By 1939, physicist William Shockley thought a solution might lie in solid-state physics. After the war, AT&T’s Bell Labs assigned Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen to develop a solid-state amplifier.

Shockley mostly worked off campus.At the lab, Brattain found that a germanium crystal in contact with two wires two-thousandths of an inch apart amplified current. He and Bardeen then built the first point-contact transistor?a name derived from the words transfer and resistor. Bell Labs unveiled the invention in June 1948.

Shockley missed out on it all. So he holed up in a hotel room and designedthe junction transistor?stronger and easier to make than its point-contact cousin. Despite bad blood, Brattain, Bardeen and Shockley were jointly awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics.

By 1951, commercial production of both types of transistors had begun. Transistors soon entered popular culture with the iconic pocket radio. By the 1960s, no teenager would be caught without a Honey-Tone De Luxe hi-fi transistor radio or equivalent on her beach blanket, and the sounds of distant baseball games wafted from front stoops everywhere.

Today, silicon chips typically contain more than 7 million tiny transistors. The technology is part of every information-age innovation?from MP3 players to the International Space Station.