Bell Labs Innovation Engine Made Transistor: Lewis Lapham

``The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation'' by Jon Gertner. Source: Penguin via Bloomberg

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 buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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