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The Founding Fathers of the Silicon Valley

15 February 2011, by Latesha    one comment

Vacuum tubes -- what they had before transistors Two days before Christmas in 1947, the world was busily scurried around buying and wrapping gifts, cooking ham, and filling stockings; completely unaware that three men had just created something incredible. Something which would usher in the Information Age, change the face of technology, business, and the way we live our lives. In fact, the presents which today’s teenagers demand from Santa wouldn’t even be possible without this small but significant invention – the transistor.

Anyone with an interest in electronics knows just how important this device is; a semiconductor which amplifies and switches electronic signals, transistors are the key active component of many gadgets we consider essential in our modern day life. We can carry our slim, streamlined laptops, listen to MP3 players, and punch out sums on our portable calculators all thanks (largely) to three very intelligent men – John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley.

Their discovery and its development played an instrumental role in the history of technology. Let’s explore the unique contributions made by each member of the transistor ‘A Team’.

The people underneath the geniuses

John Bardeen was often said to be the brains of the operation. Born to well-off, intelligent parents in 1908, John was something of a prodigy; graduating high school at 15 and described by his mother as ‘the concentrated essence of the brain’. A defining point for John was the pursuit of his PHD in mathematical physics at Princeton University. This is where he explored the study of metals with scientists like Eugene Wigner and Frederick Seitz, and realised the importance of quantum mechanics theories in understanding how semiconductors worked. He couldn’t have possibly known at the time just how crucial this knowledge would become!

Walter Brattain has been described as the hands that complemented John’s brain. As a co-worker said, ‘He could put things together out of sealing wax and paper clips, if you wish, and make things work.’ More cowboy than scientist, Walter was brought up on a cattle ranch in Washington, and applied his practical skills to every problem presented. After gaining his PHD in physics, a chance meeting with Joseph Becker of Bell Labs landed him a position studying copper-oxide rectifiers. His insight into the generation of electrical currents in crystals and research on the surfaces of semiconductors cuprous oxide and silicon helped make him a valuable asset in the development of the transistor.

William Shockley was definitely the most controversial character of the threesome. His astounding achievements in advancing radar equipment and depth charges during World War II, position as advisor to the Secretary of War, and brilliant mind are in direct contrast to the violent, racist, and bitter characteristics he became known for later in life. William headed up a research team seeking a solid-state alternative to fragile glass vacuum tube amplifiers at Bell Labs, and brought together John and Walter, who he knew from his schooldays, to help uncover why the amplifier design he had devised didn’t work.

The discovery

John, Walter, and William worked feverishly to solve this puzzle. In the laboratory and at the golf course they talked metals, voltage, and the implications of electrical currents on surfaces. After switching from using a silicon crystal to germanium, and implementing their discoveries about how electrons behave at the surface of the metal, Bell Labs were convinced that they had cracked it, and hastened to patent the new designs.

The first point-contact transistor, (a portmanteau of the term “transfer resistor”) was born!

The three men were awarded the Nobel Physics Prize in 1956 for their key research into the transistor concept. Interestingly, by this point John Bardeen had left Bell Labs due to William Shockley’s disagreeable, competitive nature and the consequent disintegration in their working relationship.

Implications

The arrival of the transistor was a catalyst for the Silicon Valley boom – William Shockley left Bell Labs holding a grudge that his name hadn’t appeared on the patent applications to start his own company, Shockley Superconductor. This fell apart due to his suspicious and dictator-like managerial style, and defecting employees created spin-off rival companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, and National Semiconductor; issuing in the new generation of Silicon Valley start-ups and the microelectronics revolution.

Fast-forward 63 years, and there are more transistors built per second than there are people on the planet; billions of these devices are what power our life in the 20th century. As you may be aware, the most common form transistors are utilised in today is through integrated circuits (or commonly, ‘chips’.) The integration of large numbers of tiny transistors into a small chip was an enormous improvement over the previous manual assembly of circuits using electronic components. The implications of this in the development of technology is huge – as the power of IC’s increase and their size decreases, less materials are required to accommodate them.

This means our laptops get smaller, our systems become more streamlined, and the way we approach hardware and computing radically shifts.

Other advantages which distinguish the transistor from its predecessor, the vacuum tube, are:

It’s hard to believe that the transistor was only introduced the world of technology in 1947. Those enjoying the many benefits of the device all throughout the day; listening to the car radio on the way to work, checking emails on their iPhone, or jogging to tunes on an MP3 player certainly wouldn’t think to give credit to John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley. But these three founding fathers definitely made a big impact – and as John said, ‘Science is a field which grows continuously with ever expanding frontiers.’

What do you think is the next frontier for technology?

— Written by guest writer Latesha Randall

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