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Howard Anderson
Howard Anderson
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20 People Who Changed Tech: Shockley, Bardeen & Brattain

All hail the transistor, the building block of the computer, communications and space ages.

John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain
John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain
I have a question for you: Where do all the bright people work? Maybe Google and Amazon and maybe startups funded by venture capital. Ten years ago it was clearly Microsoft; 20 years ago maybe IBM Yorktown Heights. But from 1930 to 1970, it was AT&T Bell Labs. No question.

This was the place that spewed Nobel Prize winners. It's where brainpower wanted to be. You could have formed a Mensa group on every floor. Want to know a little secret? Bell Labs really ran AT&T -- each AT&T telephone company was "assessed" 2% of its sales to fund Bell Labs and Bell Labs took on only those projects that were "interesting." Most manufacturing companies have an R&D department. Bell Labs had a manufacturing department: Western Electric. Out of Bell Labs came the transistor.

Before the transistor? The Stone Age. After? The Space Age. The Computer Age. The Communications Age. Call it what you will, this invention changed the world, changed the wealth of nations and changed the balance of power -- everywhere.

And it started quite simply. The light bulb was essentially just a vacuum tube with a filament, much as Thomas Edison built it. Radio amplifiers are really variations on the same theme, just a light bulb with an extra plate. And as impressive as those amplifiers were, they failed with amazing regularity. They got hot, very hot, and when they got hot the materials inside began to break down.


So you fix them, right? What's the big deal? It's simple if you're replacing a tube in your RCA Victor radio; it becomes a very big deal when you're AT&T and you need to amplify your signal to cross the country. So somebody, anybody had to go out and find that pesky dead culprit, change it and get the system working again.

Except that some of those amplifying boxes were in the middle of nowhere. So AT&T rang up its Home For Geniuses and told them to get hopping, find a replacement for those quirky vacuum tubes. World War II was over and voice traffic was escalating. Direct distance dialing was coming and an avalanche of people wanted to talk to each other. Ma Bell needs help!

20 People Who Changed Tech

William Shockley was put in charge, and he put John Bardeen, a physicist and electrical engineer, and Walter Brattain, a physicist, on the case. The three of them came up with the "transfer register," or transistor. Bell Labs patented the device in 1948 and the Three Amigos shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956. (Actually, they weren't Three Amigos. Shockley was a bit of an ego head case.)

But here's where it started getting fun. Because AT&T was a public utility, it was forced to license its patents for (hold your hat) $25,000. So if you're a vacuum tube maker, what do you do? Slam dunk, you take out a license. RCA bought a license. So did GE. And Shockley himself bought one. Why not?


Irony: Even though Bell Labs invented the damn thing, it didn't get around to using transistors for another 10 years. It still had a lot of vacuum tubes hanging around that it didn't want to write off. And it's that kind of thinking that ultimately cost AT&T an even bigger prize: dominating the still-non-existent computer industry.

One of the companies taking out a license was Texas Instruments, a small, innocuous division of an oil well services company that needed to build better instruments to find oil. Thus, transistor technology jumped from beautiful downtown Newark, N.J., to Texas and California.

The technology that could locate underground oil could be re-tasked to find underwater boats. And so TI began making sonar to find subs, becoming a defense contractor. A few years later, in 1958, a TI engineer named Jack Kirby was bold enough to put five of these transistors on a half-inch piece of germanium. It was the first integrated circuit, and Kirby would go on to win a Nobel in physics in 2000.

Shockley headed west and took a few of the Bright Boys from Bell Labs with him to what became Silicon Valley. Shockley was a terrible manager, and his loyal team was soon in revolt. These renegades, aka the Traitorous Eight (Gordon Bell, Robert Noyes, etc.), spun off from Shockley Semiconductor and went to Fairchild, where they came to be known as the Fairchildren. They got to work perfecting the transistor and working on multiple transistor devices ... to be known as semiconductors.

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Let's imagine that you printed this article out on your home computer, and let's estimate that there are 1,000 words on that page. What did it cost you? Two cents maybe? But suppose you want smaller-type fonts and put 2,000 words on the page. Or 4,000. Or if you could make the type small enough, 4,000,000 words. Would your cost go up? Of course not. Yes, you might use a little more of that oh-so-expensive HP ink, but let's be serious.

Why is this important? Because once we start etching and putting more elements into one of these chips, the cost goes straight down. We're borrowing technology from the printing industry, which goes back to Gutenberg. The early transistors cost $150 each!

Microprocessor Transistor Counts - Moore's Law chart
Source: Wikipedia

All of a sudden, the rules had been forever broken. Costs of electronic components would go down per element to almost zero, which would open up huge markets for computers, communications and consumer electronics. It would be possible to put entire computers on one chip, spawning the personal computer, cellphone and about every other advanced device we own and will own.

transistor and cash

Noyce and Moore would go off to start yet another company, Intelligent Telecommunications, or Intel. More on them in the next installment of this series.

The irony of all this: Because AT&T was forced to license out this technology and was reluctant to leverage this advantage itself, new companies sprung up to take the torch forward. AT&T on its own wouldn't have pursued such markets, but the Knew Kids On the Block figured out how to combine breakthrough technology and sophisticated money to create the largest pool of talent and wealth the world has ever known.

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