1947 – The Invention of the Transistor

Our latest blog is another in the series of key scientific discoveries in the 200 years we have been in business. The latest focuses on the invention of the transistor and the impact it has had on current technologies which we may now take for granted.

Following his return from World Ward 2, William Shockley took employment with Bell Engineering, the engineering subsidiary for Bell Telecoms. Working alongside a Walter Brattain and John Bardeen, Shakely embarked on a project to replace the unreliable vacuum tubes with new semiconductor technology. That April they conceived a “field-effect” amplifier and switch based on the germanium and silicon technology developed during the war, but it failed to work as intended.

In December 1947 the team lead by Shockley made a significant breakthrough, they noted that two pieces of Germanium held together by a plastic wedge. The voltage flowing through one side of the metal was modulated by the current flowing on the other piece of metal. Named the “transistor” by electrical engineer John Pierce, Bell Labs publicly announced the revolutionary solid-state device at a press conference in New York on June 30, 1948.

At the time there was speculation that this would have an impact on electronics and electronic communication. However, I don’t think anyone at the time would have predicted the impact that this invention would have for years to come. Most current digital technology, including tablets and mobile phones, still use this principle and forms the staple component of the technology.

Following their achievement the trio involved with the revolutionary discovery shared the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics. Shockley left Bell Laboratories to form his own business in California, in the area which would become known as Silicon Valley. Walter Britain stayed with Bell Labs for many more years to come before become a Physics Professor at the University of Illinois.