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The transistor turns 60

Birthday on Sunday

The Transistor's Real Inventor?

Years before the work of Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain, German physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld (1881-1963) obtained three US patents that covered the principles on which the field-effect transistor operates. A few years later, fellow German physicist Oskar Heil (1908-1994) was granted a field-effect device patent of his own. Should Lilienfeld and Heil be credited as the fathers of the transistor?

Heil's patent was granted in the UK on 6 December 1935 and derived from an application made on 4 March the previous year, in Germany and in Britain, where Heil was working. Lilienfeld's first patent - "Method and Apparatus for Controlling Electric Currents" - was granted in the US on 28 January 1930, four years after it was filed, on 8 October 1926. Lilienfeld's second patent - "Device for Controlling Electric Current" - was filed on 28 March 1928 and granted on 7 March 1933.

Lilienfeld's devices have since been made and show to work as he predicted, but it's not known whether he himself made one. Or Heil, for that matter. We'll probably never know if they did, which leaves Bardeen and Brattain credited as the men who made the first working transistor.

They applied for patent to protect their discovery on 17 June 1948. It was granted on 3 October 1950.

Lilienfeld's transistor

Lilienfeld's field-effect transistor

It has been claimed that Shockley, for one, was aware of Lilienfeld's work, and built a working version of a Lilienfeld transistor. However, Shockley never referred to either Heil or Lilienfeld's work in his own research papers.

And then there are German physicists Herbert Mataré (1912- ) and Heinrich Welker (1912-1981), who created a point-contact transistor of their own during 1948. By June of that year, they had begun to obtain consistent amplification - only to learn, a month later, Bell Labs' team had beaten them to it some six months previously.

That didn't stop them putting their 'transistron' into production, but like Bardeen and Brattain's design, it would soon be superseded by Shockley's junction transistor.

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