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Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age

Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age

by Michael Riordan, Lillian Hoddeson

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"Without the invention of the transistor, I'm quite sure that the PC would not exist as we know it today."—Bill Gates
On December 16, 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, physicists at Bell Laboratories, jabbed two electrodes into a sliver of germanium. The power flowing from the germanium far exceeded what went in; in that moment the transistor was


"Without the invention of the transistor, I'm quite sure that the PC would not exist as we know it today."—Bill Gates
On December 16, 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, physicists at Bell Laboratories, jabbed two electrodes into a sliver of germanium. The power flowing from the germanium far exceeded what went in; in that moment the transistor was invented and the Information Age was born. No other devices have been as crucial to modern life as the transistor and the microchip it spawned, but the story of the science and personalities that made these inventions possible has not been fully told until now. Crystal Fire fills this gap and carries the story forward. William Shockley, Bell Labs' team leader and co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with Brattain and Bardeen for the discovery, grew obsessed with the transistor and went on to become the father of Silicon Valley. Here is a deeply human story about the process of invention — including the competition and economic aspirations involved — all part of the greatest technological explosion in history.The intriguing history of the transistor — its inventors, physics, and stunning impact on society and the economy — unfolds here in a richly told tale."—Science News "Thoroughly accessible to lay readers as well as the techno-savvy. . . . [A] fine book."—Publishers Weekly

Editorial Reviews

John Durant
Riordan and Hoddeson reconstruct the birth of the transistor with considerable aplomb.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sloan Technology Series
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Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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Crystal Fire

The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age
By Michael Riordan

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright ©1998 Michael Riordan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0393318516



William Shockley was extremely agitated. Speeding through the frosty hills west of Newark on the morning of December 23, 1947, he hardly noticed the few vehicles on the narrow country road leading to Bell Telephone Laboratories. His mind was on other matters.

Arriving just after seven, Shockley parked his MG convertible in the company lot, bounded up two flights of stairs, and rushed through the deserted corridors to his office. That afternoon his research team was to demonstrate a promising new electronic device to his boss. He had to be ready. An amplifier based on a semiconductor, he knew, could ignite a revolution. Lean and hawk-nosed, his temples graying and his thinning hair slicked back from a proud, jutting forehead, Shockley had dreamed of inventing such a device for almost a decade. Now his dream was about to come true.

About an hour later, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain pulled up at this modern research campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, twenty miles from New York City. Members of Shockley's solid-state physics group, they had made the crucial breakthrough a week before. Using little more than a tiny, nondescriptslab of the element germanium, a thin plastic wedge, and a shiny strip of gold foil, they had boosted an electrical signal almost a hundredfold.

Soft-spoken and cerebral, Bardeen had come up with the key ideas, which were quickly and skillfully implemented by the genial Brattain, a salty, silver-haired man who liked to tinker with equipment almost as much as he loved to gab. Working shoulder to shoulder for most of the prior month, day after day except on Sundays, they had finally coaxed their curious-looking gadget into operation.

That Tuesday morning, while Bardeen completed a few calculations in his office, Brattain was over in his laboratory with a technician, making last-minute checks on their amplifier. Around one edge of a triangular plastic wedge, he had glued a small strip of gold foil, which he carefully slit along this edge with a razor blade. He then pressed both wedge and foil down into the dull-gray germanium surface with a makeshift spring fashioned from a paper clip. Less than an inch high, this delicate contraption was damped clumsily together by a U-shaped piece of plastic resting upright on one of its two arms. Two copper wires soldered to edges of the foil snaked off to batteries, transformers, an oscilloscope, and other devices needed to power the gadget and assess its performance.

Occasionally, Brattain paused to light a cigarette and gaze through blinds on the window of his clean, well-equipped lab. Stroking his mustache, he looked out across a baseball diamond on the spacious rural campus to a wooded ridge of the Watchung Mountains--worlds apart from the cramped, dusty laboratory he had occupied in New York City before the war. Slate-colored clouds stretched off to the horizon. A light rain began to fall.

At forty-five, Brattain had come a long way from his years as a roughneck kid growing up in the Columbia River basin. As a sharpshooting teenager, he helped his father grow corn and raise cattle on the family homestead in Tonasket, Washington, close to the Canadian border. "Following three horses and a harrow in the dust," he often joked, "was what made a physicist out of me."

Brattain's interest in the subject was sparked by two professors at Whitman College, a small liberal-arts college in the southeastern corner of the state. It carried him through graduate school at Oregon and Minnesota to a job in 1929 at Bell Labs, where he had remained--happy to be working at the best industrial research laboratory in the world.

Bardeen, a thirty-nine-year-old theoretical physicist, could hardly have been more different. Often lost in thought, he came across as very shy and self-absorbed. He was extremely parsimonious with his words, parceling them out softly in a deliberate monotone as if each were a precious gem never to be squandered. "Whispering John" some of his friends called him. But whenever he spoke, they listened. To many, he was an oracle.

Raised in a large academic family, the second son of the dean of the University of Wisconsin medical school, Bardeen had been intellectually precocious. He grew up among the ivied dorms and the sprawling frat houses lining the shores of Lake Mendota near downtown Madison, the state capital. Entering the university at fifteen, he earned two degrees in electrical engineering and worked a few years in industry before heading off to Princeton in 1933 to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

In the fall of 1945, Bardeen took a job at Bell Labs, then winding down its wartime research program and gearing up for an expected postwar boom in electronics. He initially shared an office with Brattain, who had been working on semiconductors since the early 1930s, and soon became intrigued by these curious materials, whose electrical properties were just beginning to be understood. Poles apart temperamentally, the two men became fast friends, often playing a round of golf together at the local country club on weekends.

Shortly after lunch that damp December day, Bardeen joined Brattain in his laboratory. Outside, the rain had changed to snow, which was beginning to accumulate. Shockley arrived about ten minutes later, accompanied by his boss, acoustics expert Harvey Fletcher, and Bell's research director, Ralph Bown--a tall, broad-shouldered man fond of expensive suits and fancy bow ties.

"The Brass," thought Bardeen a little contemptuously, using a term he had picked up from wartime work with the Navy. Certainly these two executives would appreciate the commercial promise of this device. But could they really understand what was going on inside that shiny slab of germanium? Shockley might be comfortable rubbing elbows and bantering with the higher-ups, but Bardeen would rather be working on the physics he loved.

After a few words of explanation, Brattain powered up his equipment. The others watched the luminous spot that was racing across the oscilloscope screen jump and fall abruptly as he switched the odd contraption in and out of the circuit using a toggle switch. From the height of the jump, they could easily tell it was boosting the input signal many times whenever it was included in the loop. And yet there wasn't a single vacuum tube in the entire circuit!

Then, borrowing a page from the Bell history books, Brattain spoke a few impromptu words into a microphone. They watched the sudden look of surprise on Bown's bespectacled face as he reacted to the sound of Brattain's gravelly voice booming in his ears through the headphones. Bown passed them to Fletcher, who shook his head in wonder shortly after putting them on.

For Bell Telephone Laboratories, it was an archetypal moment. More than seventy years earlier, a similar event had occurred in the attic of a boardinghouse in Boston, Massachusetts, when Alexander Graham Bell uttered the words, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you."

IN THE WEEKS that followed, however, Shockley was torn by conflicting emotions. The invention of the transistor, as Bardeen and Brattain's solid-state amplifier soon came to be called, had been a "magnificent Christmas present" for his group and especially for Bell Labs, which had staunchly supported their basic research program. But he was chagrined to have had no direct role in this crucial breakthrough. "My elation with the group's success was tempered by not being one of the inventors," he recalled many years later. "I experienced frustration that my personal efforts, started more than eight years before, had not resulted in a significant inventive contribution of my own."

Growing up in Palo Alto and Hollywood, the only son of a well-to-do mining engineer and his Stanford-educated wife, Bill Shockley had been raised to consider himself special--a leader of men, not a follower. His interest in science was stimulated during his boyhood by a Stanford professor who lived in the neighborhood. It flowered at Cal Tech, where he majored in physics before heading east in 1932 to seek a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he dived headlong into the Wonderland world of quantum mechanics, where particles behave like waves and waves like particles, and began to explore how streams of electrons trickle through crystalline materials such as ordinary table salt. Four years later, when Bell Labs lifted its Depression-era freeze on new employees, the cocky young Californian was the first new physicist hired.

With the encouragement of Mervin Kelly, then Bell's research director, Shockley began seeking ways to fashion a rugged solid-state device to replace the balky, unreliable switches and amplifiers commonly used in phone equipment. His familiarity with the weird quantum world gave him a decided advantage in this quest. In late 1939 he thought he had come up with a good idea--to stick a tiny bit of weathered copper screen inside a piece of semiconductor. Although skeptical, Brattain helped him build this crude device early the next year. It proved a complete failure.

Far better insight into the subtleties of solids was needed--and much purer semiconductor materials, too. World War II interrupted Shockley's efforts, but wartime research set the stage for major breakthroughs in electronics and communications once the war ended. Stepping in as Bell Labs vice president, Kelly recognized these unique opportunities and organized a solid-state physics group, installing his ambitious protege as its co-leader.

Soon after return returning to the Labs in early 1945, Shockley came up with another design for a semiconductor amplifier. Again, it didn't work. And he couldn't understand why. Discouraged, he turned to other projects, leaving the conundrum to Bardeen and Brattain. In the course of their research, which took almost two years, they stumbled upon a different--and successful--way to make such an amplifier.

Their invention quickly spurred Shockley into a bout of feverish activity. Galled at being upstaged, he could think of little else besides semiconductors for over a month. Almost every moment of free time he spent on trying to design an even better solid-state amplifier, one that would be easier to manufacture and use. Instead of whooping it up with other scientists and engineers while attending two conferences in Chicago, he spent New Year's Eve cooped up in his hotel room with a pad and a few pencils, working into the early morning hours on yet another of his ideas.

By late January 1948 Shockley had figured out the important details of his own design, filling page after page of his lab notebook. His approach would use nothing but a small strip of semiconductor material--silicon or germanium--with three wires attached, one at each end and one in the middle. He eliminated the delicate "point contacts" of Bardeen and Brattain's unwieldy contraption (the edges of the slit gold foil wrapped around the plastic wedge). Those, he figured, would make manufacturing difficult and lead to quirky performance. Based on boundaries or "junctions" to be established within the semiconductor material itself, his amplifier should be much easier to mass-produce and far more reliable.

But it took more than two years before other Bell scientists perfected the techniques needed to grow germanium crystals with the right characteristics to act as transistors and amplify electrical signals. And not for a few more years could such "junction transistors" be produced in quantity. Meanwhile, Bell engineers plodded ahead, developing point-contact transistors based on Bardeen and Brattain's ungainly invention. By the middle of that decade, millions of dollars in new equipment based on this device was about to enter the telephone system.

Still, Shockley had faith that his junction approach would eventually win out. He had a brute confidence in the superiority of his ideas. And rarely did he miss an opportunity to tell Bardeen and Brattain, whose relationship with their abrasive boss rapidly soured. In a silent rage, Bardeen left Bell Labs in 1951 for an academic post at the University of Illinois. Brattain quietly got himself reassigned elsewhere within the labs, where he could pursue research on his own. The three men crossed paths again in Stockholm, where they shared the 1956 Nobel prize in physics for their invention of the transistor. The tension eased a bit after that--but not much.

BY THE MID-1950s physicists and electrical engineers may have recognized the transistor's significance, but the general public was still almost completely oblivious. The millions of radios, television sets, and other electronic devices produced every year by such grayflannel giants of American industry as General Electric, Philco, RCA, and Zenith came in large, clunky boxes powered by balky vacuum tubes that took a minute or so to warm up before anything could happen. In 1954 the transistor was largely perceived as an expensive laboratory curiosity with only a few specialized applications such as hearing aids and military communications.

But that year things started to change dramatically. A small, innovative Dallas company began producing junction transistors for portable radios, which hit U.S. stores at $49.95. Texas Instruments curiously abandoned this market, only to see it cornered by a tiny, little-known Japanese company called Sony. Transistor radios you could carry around in your shirt pocket soon became a minor status symbol for teenagers in the suburbs sprawling across the American landscape. After Sony started manufacturing TV sets powered by transistors in the 1960s, U.S. leadership in consumer electronics began to wane.

Vast fortunes would eventually be made in an obscure valley south of San Francisco then filled with apricot orchards. In 1955 Shockley left Bell Labs for California, intent on making the millions he thought he deserved, founding the first semiconductor company in the valley. He lured top-notch scientists and engineers away from Bell and other companies, ambitious men like himself who soon jumped ship to start their own firms. What became famous around the world as Silicon Valley began with Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the progenitor of hundreds of companies like it, many of them far more successful.

The transistor has indeed proved to be what Shockley so presciently called the "nerve cell" of the Information Age. Hardly a unit of electronic equipment can be made today without it. Many thousands--and even millions--of them are routinely packed with other microscopic specks onto slim crystalline slivers of silicon called microprocessors, better known as microchips. By 1961 transistors were the foundation of a billion-dollar semiconductor industry whose sales were doubling almost every year. Over three decades later, the computing power that had once required rooms full of bulky electronic equipment is now easily loaded into units that can sit on a desktop, be carried in a briefcase, or even rest in the palm of one's hand. Words, numbers, and images flash around the globe almost instantaneously via transistor-powered satellites, fiber-optic networks, cellular phones, and telefax machines.

Through their landmark efforts, Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley had struck the first glowing sparks of a great technological fire that has raged through the rest of the century and shows little sign of abating. Cheap, portable, and reliable equipment based on transistors can now be found in almost every village and hamlet in the world. This tiny invention has made the world a far smaller and more intimate place than ever before.

NOBODY COULD HAVE forseen the coming revolution when Ralph Bown announced the new invention on June 30, 1948, at a press conference held in the aging Bell Labs headquarters on West Street, facing the Hudson River opposite the bustling Hoboken Ferry. "We have called it the Transistor," he began, slowly spelling out the name, "because it is a resistor or semiconductor device which can amplify electrical signals as they are transferred through it." Comparing it to the bulky vacuum tubes that served this purpose in virtually every electrical circuit of the day, he told reporters that the transistor could accomplish the very same feats and do them much better, wasting far less power.

But the press paid little attention to the small cylinder with two flimsy wires poking out of it that was being demonstrated by Bown and his staff that sweltering summer day. None of the reporters suspected that the physical process silently going on inside this innocuous-looking metal tube, hardly bigger than the rubber erasers on the ends of their pencils, would utterly transform their world.

Editors at the New York Times were intrigued enough to mention the breakthrough in the July 1 issue, but they buried the story on page 46 in "The News of Radio." After noting that Our Miss Brooks would replace the regular CBS Monday-evening program Radio Theatre that summer, they devoted a few paragraphs to the new amplifier.

"A device called a transistor, which has several applications in radio where a vacuum tube ordinarily is employed, was demonstrated for the first time yesterday at Bell Telephone Laboratories," began the piece, noting that it had been employed in a ratio receiver, a telephone system, and a television set. "In the shape of a small metal cylinder about a half-inch long, the transistor contains no vacuum, grid, plate or glass envelope to keep the air away," the column continued. "Its action is instantaneous, there being no warm-up delay since no heat is developed as in a vacuum tube."

Perhaps too much other news was breaking that sultry Thursday morning. Turnstiles on the New York subway system, which until midnight had always droned to the dull clatter of nickels, now marched only to the music of dimes. Subway commuters responded with resignation. Idlewild Airport opened for business the previous day in the swampy meadowlands just east of Brooklyn, supplanting La Guardia as New York's principal destination for international flights. And the hated Red Sox had beaten the world-champion Yankees 7 to 3.

Earlier that week, the gathering clouds of the Cold War had darkened dramatically over Europe after Soviet occupation forces in eastern Germany refused to allow Allied convoys to carry any more supplies into West Berlin. The United States and Britain responded to this blockade with a massive airlift. Hundreds of transport planes brought the thousands of tons of food and fuel needed daily by the more than 2 million trapped citizens. All eyes were on Berlin. "The incessant roar of the planes--that typical and terrible 20th Century sound, a voice of cold, mechanized anger--filled every ear in the city," reported Time. An empire that soon encompassed nearly half the world's population seemed awfully menacing that week to a continent weary of war.

To almost everyone who knew about it, including its two inventors, the transistor was just a compact, efficient, rugged replacement for vacuum tubes. Neither Bardeen nor Brattain foresaw what a crucial role it was about to play in computers, although Shockley had an inkling. In the postwar years electronic digital computers, which could then be counted on the fingers of a single hand, occupied large rooms and required teams of watchful attendants to replace the burned-out elements among their thousands of overheated vacuum tubes. Only the armed forces, the federal government, and major corporations could afford to build and operate such gargantuan, power-hungry devices.

Five decades later the same computing power is easily crammed inside a pocket calculator costing around $10, thanks largely to microchips and the transistors on which they are based. For the amplifying action discovered at Bell Labs in 1947-1948 actually takes place in just a microscopic sliver of semiconductor material and--in stark contrast to vacuum tubes--produces almost no wasted heat. Thus the transistor has lent itself readily to the relentless miniaturization and the fantastic cost reductions that have put digital computers at almost everybody's fingertips. Without the transistor, the personal computer would have been inconceivable, and the Information Age it spawned could never have happened.

Linked to a global communications network that has itself undergone a radical transformation due to transistors, computers are now revolutionizing the ways we obtain and share information. Whereas our parents learned about the world by reading newspapers and magazines or by listening to the baritone voice of Edward R. Murrow on their radios, we can now access far more information at the click of a mouse--and from a far greater variety of sources. Or we witness earthshaking events like the fall of the Soviet Union amid the comfort of our living rooms, often the moment they occur and without interpretation.

While Russia is no longer the looming menace it was during the Cold War, nations that have embraced the new information technologies based on transistors and microchips have flourished. Japan and its retinue of developing East Asian countries increasingly set the world's communications standards, manufacturing much of the necessary equipment. Television signals penetrate an ever-growing fraction of the globe via satellite. Banks exchange money via rivers of ones and zeroes flashing through electronic networks all around the world. And boy meets girl over the Internet.

No doubt the birth of a revolutionary artifact often goes unnoticed amid the clamor of daily events. In half a century's time, the transistor, whose modest role is to amplify electrical signals, has redefined the meaning of power, which today is based as much upon the control and exchange of information as it is on iron or oil. The throbbing heart of this sweeping global transformation is the tiny solid-state amplifier invented by Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley. The crystal fire they ignited during those anxious postwar years has radically reshaped the world and the way its inhabitants now go about their daily lives.


Excerpted from Crystal Fire by Michael Riordan Copyright ©1998 by Michael Riordan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Stanford University physicist Michael Riordan has written several popular books on science and technology. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Lillian Hoddeson is an historian at the University of Illinois and lives in Urbana. Research for Crystal Fire was sponsored by the Sloan Foundation.

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