[Noisebridge-discuss] Transistor's Secret History

johnyradio johnyradio at gmail.com
Tue Oct 15 12:12:58 UTC 2013

In the last edition of Make: Electronics, published by O'Reilly press, 
on Page 78, author Charles Platt states:

"There's no dispute that the first working transistor was developed at 
Bell Laboratories in 1948 by John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter 

I'm not a historian or electronics expert but, based on what I've read 
elsewhere, I believe the above statement may be sorely incorrect. I 
submitted my findings to the publisher, O'Reilly.

(search page for johny radio)

The author replied to me:

"Thanks for your discussion of the invention of the transistor, which is 
enlightening. It may be that Bell Labs should be credited with the 
_bipolar_  transistor but I need to read some more to figure out how 
this section of the book should be rewritten."

Below are my findings about the little-known history of the transistor. 
The following information is documented in various places on the 
internet. I provide links for most of it. Apologies for any typos or 
inaccuracies. Probably some of you readers have superior information; 
please share.

IEEE.org states:

"The underlying concept of the MOSFET-modulation of conductivity in a 
semiconductor triode structure by a transverse electric field-first 
appeared in a 1928 patent application."

That first transistor was invented around 1923, by physicist Dr. J. 
Edgar Lilienfeld: a silicon metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect 
modulation of conductivity in a semiconductor triode structure by a 
transverse electric field (a MOSFET transistor). This is not the diode 
Mr. Platt mentions. While the devices did not perform to today's 
standards, signal amplification was detected. The exact construction 
employed and performance obtained by Lilienfeld remain unknown.

Lilienfeld's patent numbers are:

     # 1,745,175 Method and Apparatus for Controlling Electric Currents
     # 1,877,140 Amplifier for Electric Current
     # 1,900,018 Device for Controlling Electric Current

Because of Lilienfeld's prior art, the Bell Lab's field effect 
transistor patent, and half the claims in its point junction transistor 
patent application, were disallowed by the US Patent Office. 
"Undisputed" indeed. Bell Labs had built working devices described by 
Lilienfeld's patents, but made no mention of Lilienfeld in any Bell 
research papers, nor in the Bell Labs version of transistor history. 
Robert G. Arns, Professor of Physics at the University of Vermont, 
discovered a 1948 patent deposition by John B. Johnson (of Johnson noise 
fame) stating that Bell Labs had built an aluminum oxide MOSFET called 
out in Lilienfeld's patent, found useful power amplification, and 
published the result without reference to Lilienfeld. In this sworn 
testimony to the U.S. patent office in 1949, Johnson reported 
"...although the modulation index of 11 per cent is not great,...the 
useful output power is substantial...it is in principle operative as an 
amplifier". Johnson was possibly among the first people to make a 
working field effect transistor, based on Julius Edgar Lilienfeld's US 
Patent 1,900,018 of 1928.

Mr. Johnson later denied this, and contradicted himself: in an article 
in 1964 he denied the operability of Lilienfeld's patent, saying "I 
tried conscientiously to reproduce Lilienfeld's structure according to 
his specification and could observe no amplification or even modulation."

This contradiction, plus the rejection of Bell Lab's patent applications 
referred to above, seems to refute Mr. Platt's use of the word 
"undisputed". It's also a rich drama that would make for a great read. 
I'm not saying Mr. Platt should recount all the details, but a summary 
appropriate to his book.


There's more.

In early 1945, [German researcher] Welker recognized that the two 
semiconductors could be used to make what we now call a field-effect 
transistor. In fact, the device he had in mind was strikingly similar to 
one that Shockley was to suggest at Bell Labs a few months later. ... 
Given the secrecy shrouding the Bell Labs device, there is no 
possibility Mataré and Welker could have been influenced by knowledge of 
it before July 1948, when news of the revolutionary invention became 
widespread. But it seems from the still-sketchy historical record that 
they may well indeed have had a working amplifier before Bell Labs.

"This business of the French transistors would be hard to unravel, i.e., 
whether [Welker and Mataré] developed [the transistor] independently," 
[Bell Labs researcher Alan Holden] confided in a 14 May letter to 
William B. Shockley.

"As we arrived [at the Paris lab, the German  team was] transmitting to 
a little portable radio receiver outdoors from a transmitter indoors, 
which they said was modulated by a transistor."

Four days later, France's Secretary of Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones 
(PTT) announced the invention of the transistron to the French press.

No dispute, indeed.

Ironically, it was finally the needs of computers and the opportunities 
created by integrated circuits that made Lilienfeld's 1928 silicon 
MOSFET technique the basic element of late 20th-century digital 
electronics, and NOT the Shockley transistor.

 From Radio Bygones magazine:

Radio historian Lawrence A. Pizzella WR6K notes anecdotal stories of 
shipboard wireless operators in the second decade of the 20th century 
achieving amplification using a silicon carbide (carborundum) crystal 
and two cat's whiskers. He cites an interview with Russell Ohl, who's 
accidental discovery of the P-N barrier in his work at Bell Telephone 
Laboratories led to the development of solar cells. Pizzella says 
Russell Ohl showed William Shockley his radio using crystal amplifiers 
several years before the transistor's alleged invention in 1947. 
Shockley is also quoted (in Crystal Fire by Riordan and Hoddeson) as 
saying that seeing Ohl's radio convinced him that an amplifying crystal 
could be made.

A fascinating letter to Wireless World in May 1981 under this title came 
from Dr Harry E. Stockman. Says Stockman, himself a distinguished author 
of many books and papers on semiconductor physics, "Lilienfeld created 
his non-tube device around 1923, with one foot in Canada and the other 
in the USA, and the date of his Canadian patent application was October 
1925. Later American patents followed, which should have been well known 
to the Bell Labs patent office. Lilienfeld demonstrated his remarkable 
tubeless radio receiver on many occasions, but God help a fellow who at 
that time threatened the reign of the tube."

It seems VERY disputed that Bell Labs invented the transistor. The fact 
that they intentionally failed to acknowledged the pioneering work done 
by others can be explained by capitalist motivations, and by human 
nature---pride, arrogance, and plain self-interest. It may be true that 
the world wasn't ready for previous incarnations of the transistor, but 
that was no reason for denying that Lilienfeld patented the original 
solid-state triode oscillator/amplifier well before others claimed all 
the credit.


It may be that the Bell Labs transistor represented new innovations. 
Whether the above history is true or not, it is not correct for Mr. 
Platt to say Bell Labs claims are "undisputed"-- and unfair to say 
nothing about the above history. If Mr. Platt wrote that the Bell Labs 
device was the first of that TYPE of transistor, that might be better, 
but he does not say that. If the alternative history above is true, then 
this reminds me all too much of the way corporate profiteering trumps 
truth in technological progress. For example, the way Thomas Edison and 
others are routinely given credit for some of Nikola Tesla's inventions. 
Or, the way RCA claimed invention of FM radio, driving it's real 
inventor, Edwin Armstrong, to suicide.

I'll optimistically assume Mr. Platt was simply was unaware of this 
rarely talked-about history. This human drama of technological history 
would make a fascinating, and i think, more honest addition to the book.

Johny Radio

Stick It In Your Ear!

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