Bell Labs Innovation Engine Made Transistor: Lewis Lapham
It was nearing Christmas in the Murray Hill, New Jersey, building of Bell Labs. Smoke from tobacco and soldering irons filled Walter Brattain’s room, 1E455, as engineers bent over calibration equipment. Their goal: to figure out how to pass a current through a tiny piece of silicon and move the electrons and holes within.
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John Bardeen walked in and suggested a “geometry,” involving electrolyte fluid and a wire piercing the slice of silicon, which gave a tiny gain in power. After experimenting with various types of wire, gold, electrolyte solutions, silicon and germanium, on Dec. 16, 1947, they finally got a powerful effect.
This was more than a switch, an amplifier or a replacement for the vacuum tube. After a demonstration, vice president of research Ralph Bown said it was “a basically new thing in the world.”
A ballot was circulated to name the device, including “Surface States Triode” and “Iotatron.” The winner was “Transistor.”
I spoke with Jon Gertner, author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” on the following topics:
1. Deep Thinking
2. Incubator of Creativity
3. Crucial Inventions
4. Information Theory
5. Loss of the Long-Term
To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at email@example.com.
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