Who really invented the Transistor?
Other claims to the invention...
This article first appeared
in Radio Bygones magazine,
Reprinted here by permission from the author,
uncovers conflicting claims and some revisionist history.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union
the state educators of the old USSR were kept busy rewriting history, either
deleting from the roll of honour all reference to heroes of the people now
fallen from grace or ascribing the credit for every modern miracle to obscure
This time, however, it’s the
Americans under fire for falsifying history and the subject is the invention of
the transistor. The received wisdom is that William
Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain invented this device in 1947 and of
that there can surely be no doubt. But there is and the colourful claims and
counterclaims make some fascinating reading.
One fact is not in dispute, that
the achievement of Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain was responsible for kick-starting the solid-state electronics revolution and the age of computerised
informatics. To decry their role in transforming electronics would be both
churlish and crazy, but the claim that they pioneered solid-state amplification
has no substance at all.
Before we go back to the dark ages,
let’s examine the standard version of transistor history, courtesy of Andrew
Wylie, who has set up an excellent website devoted to early transistor devices.
transistor was invented at Bell Laboratories in December 1947 (not in 1948 as is
often stated) by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. 'Discovered' would be a
better word, for although they were seeking a solid-state equivalent to the
vacuum tube, it was found accidentally during the investigation of the surface
states around a diode point-contact. The first transistors were therefore of the
point-contact type. William Shockley, the theorist who was leading the research,
knew at once that this was not what he was seeking: at the time he was trying to
create a solid-state device similar to what we now call a junction field-effect
Bell Labs kept their discovery quiet until June 1948 (hence the confusion about
the date of discovery). They then announced it in a fanfare of publicity, but
few people realised its significance, and it did not even make the front page of
the newspapers. Shockley basically ignored the point-contact transistor, and
continued his research in other directions. He modified his original ideas and
developed the theory of the junction transistor. In July 1951, Bell announced
the creation of such a device. In September 1951 Bell held a transistor
symposium, and licensed their technology for both types of transistor to anyone
who paid the required fee of 25 thousand dollars. This was the start of the
transistor industry that has changed the way that we live, in the Western world
However, an entirely different origin
has been proposed by Jack Shulman, president of the American Computer Company.
Frankly, his theory is pretty fantastic but it makes a rattling good read if
nothing else. Here's what he says...
I grew up in
the household of the head of Bell Labs, so I knew that there was something
strange about the transistor because I knew Bill Shockley, and Bill Shockley was
something of a witless buffoon. There's no way he could have invented the
for the transistor is made up of three pieces: positive, positive and negative;
or negative, negative and positive...silicon dioxide doped with arsenic and
boron, in 1947. Now, in 1947, doping things with boron was not easy. It required
the sort of equipment that even Bell Labs in 1946 did not possess. They had this
type of equipment at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, but it would have taken
thousands and thousands and thousands of man-hours to invent the transistor.
If you look back at it historically,
what AT&T was claiming was that one day this "genius", William Shockley, was
working with a rectifier; he looked at it and he noticed it had unusual
propensities, and there, bingo, he invented the transistor! He figured it out
believe that story? Me neither. And I knew, because the administrative head of
the transistor project was Jack Morton—the man at whose house I was staying to
go to school and whose sons I was friends with. He often commented on the fact
that it was really a shame that those three idiots got responsibility for the
transistor and he didn't.
Mr Shulman goes on to claim that the
transistor's real origin lies in technology recovered by the US Air Force from
an alien spacecraft recovered at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. It's extremely
controversial stuff and contrary to all received wisdom—but quite amusing of you
don't take it too seriously. Let’s move on rapidly, back down to earth and to
minerals in particular.
Start of silicon
It was in 1906 that the G.W.
Pickard of Amesbury, Massachusetts
perfected the crystal detector and in November of that year took out a patent
for the use of silicon in detectors. Arguably this was the start of the silicon
revolution and it did not take long before experimenters achieved amplification
using crystal devices, long before the term transistor was devised.
Solid-state electronics were born
even earlier, when Ferdinand Braun invented a solid-state rectifier using a
point contact based on lead sulphide in 1874. But it’s to Pickard that the
credit goes for
discovering that the point contact between a fine metallic wire (the so-called
‘cat’s whisker’) and the surface of certain crystalline materials (notably
silicon) could rectify and demodulate high-frequency alternating currents, such
as those produced by radio waves in a receiving antenna (what Pickard called a
‘wave-interceptor’). His crystal detector (point-contact rectifier) was the
basis of countless crystal set radio receivers, a form of radio receiver that
was popular until the crystal detector was superseded by the thermionic triode
By its nature the
crystal rectifier was a passive device, with no signal gain. But radio
Lawrence A. Pizzella WR6K notes anecdotal stories of
shipboard wireless operators in the second
decade of the 20th century achieving
amplification using a silicon carbide (carborundum) crystal and two cat’s
whiskers. He cites a taped interview made in 1975 with Russell Ohl at his home
in Vista, California
in which claims of signal gain were made. This is an excerpt from Ohl’s
He gave me a copy that he had of… I think it was The Electrician. It was
a British magazine, one of these big-paged things, you know. In it was a
translation from a Russian paper in which they had used carborundum with two
contacts and a battery supplying one of the contacts and had gotten a power gain
of ten times. And this was way back in the 1910s, so the fact that you could get
a power gain had been known, but it was never put on a controlled basis. I knew
about it because an operator of the Signal Corps back in 1919 had told me that
some of the operators used carborundum as oscillators for receiving. When I had
seen this article that Curtis gave me, I was not astounded because I had known
about this before I ever saw the article. I had heard about it. I knew a former
first sergeant in the Signal Corps who had lived in, the boarding house that I
lived and he was an expert radio operator. He told me a great deal about the use
of crystal detectors on ships. He told me that professional operators carried
two crystal detectors with them. One of them was made of carborundum them and
one of them was something like galena or something of that sort. He said the
carborundum was used for two purposes. They used it in the harbour when they
were close to a transmitter to prevent burnout. They also used it at long
distances with two points. One point was excited with a battery and they were
able to get long wave oscillations out of it and in that we were able to be in
long wave telegraph stations.
Ohl, it should be noted, was the
man who invented the silicon solar cell in 1941 and discovered during World War
II that semiconductors could be doped with small amounts of impurities to create
useful new properties. Born in 1889, he was bitten by the radio bug at the age
of 16 and devoted much of his life to making simple radio receivers employing
semiconductors. His accidental discovery of the P-N barrier in his work at Bell
Telephone Laboratories led to the development of solar cells.
A fascinating letter to
Wireless World in May 1981 under this title came from Dr Harry E. Stockman
of Sercolab (Arlington, Mass.) Then 76 years old, he had lived through the era
under discussion and provided a valuable summary of ‘prior art’ preceding the
re-invention of the transistor. His letter had been triggered by a ‘Sixty Years
Ago’ item in the same periodical) recalling an
article by W. T. Ditcham on crystal oscillation in its May 1920 issue.
This effect, he stated, was
discovered by Dr W. H. Eccles in 1910, and remarked: “It is hard to realize that
it took about ten years for practical active crystal-diode circuits to appear,
in spite of Ditcham's reminder—circuits that included both RF and AF
amplification. The last one, at the time, was totally unknown to most ‘affectionados’,
one of them being the author of this letter. Most of the credit for creating
practical devices [of this kind] goes to O. V. Lossev of Russia, whether or not
he knew of Eccles' pioneer work a decade earlier. He should have known about it;
one has the right to expect that he as a qualified scientist was familiar with
the world's scientific literature.”
comes from Lawrence Pizzella, who explains how these experimenters
created successful amplification techniques using mineral crystal devices.
Lossev, he says, used zincite and a steel cat’s whisker with bias to make an
oscillator and even a low-power transmitter in the early 1920s. This was
reported in considerable detail in the September 1924 issue of Radio News
and in the 1st and 8th October 1924 issues of Wireless
World. Hugo Gernsback, the editor of Radio News, named this the
‘Crystodyne’ and predicted that crystals would someday replace valves in
electronics. All details needed to duplicate these circuits to make a tunnel
diode oscillator are in these articles.
A German book by
Nesper described an oscillating detector circuit in 1925 too, using zincite
material and a bias voltage of 8 to 14 volts.
With so much information in
print it’s inconceivable that the Bell Labs team were unaware of these
techniques. But in any case
Pizzella says Russell Ohl showed William Shockley his radio
using crystal amplifiers several years before the transistor’s alleged invention
in 1947. Shockley is also quoted (in Crystal Fire by Riordan and Hoddeson)
as saying that seeing Ohl’s radio convinced him that an amplifying crystal could
Another experimenter of this era
who deserves far greater credit is Dr Julius Lilienfeld of Germany, who in 1926 patented the concept
of a field effect transistor (FET). He believed that applying a voltage to a
poorly conducting material would change its conductivity and thereby achieve
amplification. Lilienfeld is rightly noted for his work on the electrolytic
capacitor fame but according to Stockman should be recognised also for his
pioneering work on semiconductors.
Says Stockman, himself a
distinguished author of many books and papers on semiconductor physics, “He
created his non-tube device around 1923, with one foot in Canada and the other
in the USA, and the date of his Canadian patent application was October 1925.
Later American patents followed, which should have been well known to the Bell
Labs patent office. Lilienfeld demonstrated his remarkable tubeless radio
receiver on many occasions, but God help a fellow who at that time threatened
the reign of the tube.”
David Topham GM3WKB adds that
Lilienfeld followed his 1925 (Canadian) and 1926 (American) patent applications
for a ‘Method and Apparatus for controlling Electric Currents’ with another
granted in 1933. Says David: “US patent 1,900,018 clearly describes the field
effect transistor, constructing it using thin film deposition techniques and
using dimensions that became normal when the metal oxide FET was indeed
manufactured in quantity well over 30 years later. The patent (and subsequent
ones) describes the advantages of the device over ‘cumbersome vacuum tubes’.”
More prior art
The website of Dr Robert G. Adams states that he
designed a crystal amplifier at the age of thirteen years, when he lived at
Hastings, New Zealand. A photograph of his set-up is shown on his website along
with the diagram reproduced here with acknowledgment.
to the two crystals made use of the then-available vertical cantilever type
cat’s whisker holders, providing stable connections to the central junction and
input and output points. Two different methods of interconnection between the
two crystals gave no apparent difference in performance. Adams stresses that it
never occurred to him to pursue any patent action simply because the invention
was already in the public domain. In his view it was obviously unpatentable by
anybody (Bell Labs notwithstanding).
built a similar amplifier of this kind is Canadian radio amateur Larry Kayser (va3lk
/ wa3zia), who spotted a circuit for a ‘novel’ crystal radio circuit that
exhibited ‘amplification’ published in Gernsback’s magazine Radio during
the 1932-1934 period. This, he recalls, used two cat’s whisker probes on a
lead-mounted galena (PbS) detector. He says he was able to duplicate this
action in the early 1950s as a young hobbyist and whilst the degree of
amplification was nothing like that of the first commercial transistors, it was
at least in the order of 3dB or a bit more.
That was then but this is now.
American radio amateur Nyle Steiner K7NS was determined to prove or disprove
these claims for himself—and has succeeded in spectacular fashion. On his
website he posts technical results, photographs and curve traces of several
experiments in which he has demonstrably achieved oscillation with iron pyrites
and even transmitted his voice over the air (a circuit for a broadcast band iron
pyrites negative resistance oscillator is given there).
with this experiment has been a very exciting experience for me as it represents
the ability to build a simple homemade active semiconductor device. It is almost
like making your own homemade transistor,” he states. “This is an actual
realisation of some very old, and esoteric 1920s experiments by Eccles, Pickard
and Lossev, that were so vaguely reported in a few articles that I have often
wondered if in fact it had actually been done. Even so, I have always had an
extreme fascination with those reports of being able to produce a continuous
wave RF signal from a crude semiconductor material back in the very early days
Other experiments of his show an
oscillator based on zinc ferrite and an N-type negative resistance device,
similar to a tunnel diode, created by touching a piece of galvanized steel wire
against a piece of aluminium. As Nyle says, “This project may not be very
practical but I find it to be a very exciting experience.
The more you study the history of
invention, the fewer example you find of entirely new devices conceived and
perfected by one individual in isolation. History loves heroes and people prefer
simple stories, regardless of inconvenient facts.
It’s perfectly clear that Bell
Labs didn’t invent the transistor, they re-invented it. The fact that they totally failed
to acknowledged the pioneer work done by others can be explained by human
nature—pride, arrogance, ignorance or plain self-interest. It’s perfectly true
that the world wasn’t ready for previous incarnations of the transistor but that
was no reason for denying that Lilienfeld patented the original solid-state
triode oscillator/amplifier well before others claimed all the credit. But
that’s life; it was not the first time and doubtless not the last.
Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire (1998)
William Brinkman, Douglas
Haggan and William Troutman,
A History of the Invention of
the Transistor and Where It Will Lead Us, IEEE Journal of
vol. 32, no. 12, December 1997 (and on the WWW at
Nesper, Wie baue ich einen einfachen Detektorempfänger? (1925)
Resources on the WWW
Pickard’s patented crystal detector of 1906 kick-started
the silicon revolution.
The crystal amplifier devised by New Zealander Dr Robert
Adams in 1933, showing how terminology has changed over the years.
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