Feeds

Happy birthday, Transistor

The first working version powered up 65 years ago

Security for virtualized datacentres

The transistor, the ubiquitous building block of all electronic circuits, will be 65 years old on Sunday. The device is jointly credited to William Shockley (1910-1989), John Bardeen (1908-1991) and Walter Brattain (1902-1987), and it was Bardeen and Brattain who operated the first working point-contact transistor during an experiment conducted on 16 December 1947.

Yet this now ubiquitous device - these days more as an element in silicon chip design than as a discrete component - has a history that goes back to the mid-1920s.

Replica of the first transistor

Bardeen and Brattain's transistor, as replicated in 1997

The name isn’t 65 years old, either. It wasn't coined in 1947. Bell Labs employee John R Pierce (1910-2002) thought up the moniker, and in May 1948 his colleagues, who'd been presented with a list of names the new device might be named, opted for his.

”This is an abbreviated combination of the words ‘transconductance’ or ‘transfer’, and ‘varistor’,” Bell Labs’ voting paper put it at the time.

The team's work goes back to the late 1930s, but the real work didn't begin until after the end of World War II. Shockley proposed a field-effect transistor design that would be made out of thin slices of different semiconductors, including silicon, sandwiched together. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get this design to work the way his maths anticipated, and so Bardeen and Brattain chose to investigate the simpler, surface-effect point-contact design.

The two men produced the first point-contact transistor by attaching two gold-foil point contacts to a piece of germanium, itself mounted on a metal base. The gold sheets were kept apart with a wedge of plastic. Originally a single sheet of gold, the very closely-sited contacts were made by slicing the sheet at the apex of the triangle.

This time it worked, and Bardeen and Brattain were able to extend their apparatus with circuitry able to amplify sound signals, much to the delight of their Bell Labs bosses.

Point-contact Transistor design

The structure of the first point-contact transistor

The company would go on to put the point-contact transistor into limited production, announcing the device to the public on 1 July 1948. By then, Shockley had already developed an alternative design and the point-contact device's successor: the bipolar junction transistor. His invention, built and tested in January 1948, made for a more compact design and proved, in time, to be easier to manufacture than the bulky point-contact transistor.

It went on to become the basis for all the transistors used in electronics products right up until the broad use of Complementary Metal–Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) technology in the late 1960s following the discovery of the MOS by Bell Labs' John Atalla and Dawon Kahng in 1959, though their patent application wasn’t registered until 31 May 1960. It was granted on 27 August 1963.

Bell was finally able to put Shockley's junction transistor mass production in 1952, and afterwards licensed the design to other firms too, most notably a new, small Japanese company called Sony. Two years later, Bell replaced the germanium used in its transistors with silicon.

New hybrid storage solutions

Next page: Nobel team

More from The Register

next story
Apple iPhone 6: Missing sapphire glass screen FAIL explained
They just cannae do it in time, says analyst
Oh noes, fanbois! iPhone 6 Plus shipments 'DELAYED' in the UK
Is EMBIGGENED Apple mobile REALLY that popular?
Apple's big bang: iPhone 6, ANOTHER iPhone 6 Plus and WATCH OUT
Let's >sigh< see what Cupertino has been up to for the past year
Huawei ditches new Windows Phone mobe plans, blames poor sales
Giganto mobe firm slams door shut on Microsoft. OH DEAR
The Apple Watch and CROTCH RUBBING. How are they related?
Plus: 'NostrilTime' wristjob vid action
Phones 4u website DIES as wounded mobe retailer struggles to stay above water
Founder blames 'ruthless network partners' for implosion
Half a BILLION in the making: Bungie's Destiny reviewed
It feels very familiar - but it's still good
Apple's SNEAKY plan: COPY ANDROID. Hello iPhone 6, Watch
Sizes, prices and all – but not for the wrist-o-puter
Apple Pay is a tidy payday for Apple with 0.15% cut, sources say
Cupertino slurps 15 cents from every $100 purchase
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile
Data demand and the rise of virtualization is challenging IT teams to deliver storage performance, scalability and capacity that can keep up, while maximizing efficiency.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.