If you waited in line for an iPhone 5, you can appreciate that it was brought to you not only by Steve Jobs (posthumously) and Apple, but also by three men you may never have heard of: John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain; the inventors of the transistor.
Older radios and television sets were large and clunky. This was because their components required it, since large vacuum tubes were used to transmit electric current. With the invention of the transistor (a combination of "transfer" and "resistor"), electronic devices could be made significantly smaller as well as more cheaply, revolutionizing the electronics industry.
A transistor is a device that amplifies an electronic signal. It is composed of semiconductor material with at least three terminals that connect to an external circuit. Current applied to one pair of terminals changes the current flowing to other terminals, but since the output power is greater than the input power, the effect is the amplification of the signal.
Transistors can be mass produced using a highly automated system at low cost. While some are produced individually, most are part of integrated circuits, along with resistors, capacitors and diodes, to form what we commonly call microchips.
In 1947, John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain all worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Their goal was to find a solid-state alternative to fragile glass vacuum tube amplifiers.
John Bardeen (1908 — 1991) was a math genius from Madison, Wisconsin who graduated from high school and college early. He received a Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Princeton in 1936. During World War II, he took a leave of absence from teaching at the University of Minnesota to work for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. After the war, his expertise in solid state physics led him to Bell Labs in 1945, where he teamed up with Shockley and Brattain.
William Shockley (1910 — 1989) was born in London to American parents and raised in California. Shockley received a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936. During World War II, he took a leave of absence from Bell Labs to be the research director at Columbia's Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group, investigating counter tactics for submarine warfare. After the war he returned to Bell Labs to lead the newly formed Solid State Physics Group.
Walter Brattain (1902 — 1987) was born in China but grew up in Oregon and Washington. After obtaining undergraduate and master's degrees in physics and mathematics, he earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Minnesota in 1929, after which he was hired at Bell Telephone Laboratories. During World War II he worked on submarine detection at Columbia. After the war, he returned to Bell to work under Shockley.
The group initially worked well together, with Shockley working on the field effect principle, using an external electrical field on a semiconductor to affect its conductivity, and Bardeen and Brattain working on a point contact design for the transistor. When several patent applications were submitted without Shockley's name, however, he took offense because the work was based on his field effect theory.
Shockley continued in secret to build a transistor based on junctions rather than point contacts, which he believed would be more commercially viable. The junction transistor was introduced in 1951, and Shockley obtained a patent for it in his name. The junction transistor soon became the dominant format.
In recognition of their research, Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain were jointly awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on semiconductors and transistors.
In the 1950s, Shockley helped found Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California. In the late 1950s, in response to Shockley's management style, eight of his researchers (who became known as the "traitorous eight") left his employ to form Fairchild Semiconductor. Two of those researchers later left to form Intel. By this time, germanium, which was originally used as the dominant semiconductor material in transistors, was replaced by silicon.
Over the course of the next two decades, Shockley's wayward researchers began 65 new enterprises, which led to the formation of what is now known as "Silicon Valley," where innovation in electronics has become standard.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
- See a replica of the first transistor and an explanation of how it worked