Invention: 60 years later

What electronic device recently celebrated its 60th anniversary? Not sure? Here are some hints.

  • It was called the greatest invention of the 20th century.
  • Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley built the first one.
  • Think germanium.

The last hint should have made most of you recognize the answer as the transistor. This single technology revolutionized the electronics world more than any other and made possible many of the exciting innovations we've all come to enjoy.

For baby boomers, solid-state devices represented the second device technology they needed to understand during their career. The first was tubes. For you younger engineers, tubes were vacuum-enclosed glass devices filled with metal structures called screens, plates and cathodes. Tubes required large high-voltage power supplies, generated lots of heat, and were large and weighty devices. Semiconductors had none of those drawbacks.

Early transistors were small, operated at low voltages and had only three connections: an emitter, a base and a collector. Depending on your age, you may not even know what emitter, base or collector mean. For that matter, could a boomer engineer still identify a transistor's emitter, base and collector with an ohmmeter? Fortunately, that is seldom necessary today.

Early transistors were packaged as single-junction devices. In other words, a typical transistor consisted of a 1/4in-sized package containing only one semiconductor junction. Boomer engineers grew up building amplifiers and radios with individual transistors named CK722 and CK703.

An interesting aside is that the name transistor was only one of six names on a ballot circulated among Bell Labs engineers. Other names on that ballot included: semiconductor triode, surface states triode, crystal triode, solid triode and iotatron. The name transistor resulted from an abbreviated combination of the words transconductance and varistor.

Raytheon released the CK722 in 1953, making it the first low-cost junction transistor available to the general public. It quickly became a hit with DIY electronics buffs as well as broadcasters.

By the mid-'50s, radio manufacturers used the number of transistors in their products as an indication of product superiority. A five-transistor radio was considered better than a four-transistor radio. My aunt had one of the first five-transistor Sony pocket radios. We were amazed at how a radio could be made small enough to fit into a shirt pocket. OK, maybe it took a large pocket, but to us, this was revolutionary.

Consider the differences between the simplicity of that five-transistor AM-only radio and today's desktop PC with a CPU chip that may contain up to 2 billion transistors.

Sometimes it's fun to look back at technology, if nothing else, to remind ourselves of the tremendous advances our industry has made. It's also worth reminding ourselves that others, working in what we'd call primitive conditions, contributed so highly to the technology we enjoy today.

So, the next time you browse the Web, watch HDTV or answer your cell phone, give a nod to Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley. Without their vision, we might still be watching fuzzy black-and-white images on round, 21in CRT, tube-based TV sets.

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