Computer History MuseumSemiconductor History

1952 - Bell Labs Licenses Transistor Technology

Bell Labs technology symposia and licensing of transistor patents encourages semiconductor development.

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Bell Telephone Laboratories pursued a vigorous program of "fundamental development" in semiconductor technology to promote rapid improvements in transistors and other solid-state devices. Led by electrical engineer Jack Morton, this program fostered technologies of zone-refining (1951 Milestone) and growing large single crystals of germanium and silicon (1951 Milestone). It also developed techniques for forming p-n junctions, preparing semiconductor surfaces and attaching metal leads - plus logic circuits and systems involving transistors.

Morton advocated sharing this transistor technology with other researchers and companies because Bell Labs and its parent AT&T could benefit from advances made elsewhere. So during the 1950s they sponsored three gatherings at which other scientists and engineers visited Bell Labs to learn the new semiconductor technology first hand. Held in September 1951, the first meeting specifically addressed military users and applications.

In April 1952, over 100 representatives from 40 companies that had paid a $25,000 patent-licensing fee came for a nine-day Transistor Technology Symposium, including a visit to Western Electric's ultramodern transistor manufacturing plant in Allentown, PA. There were participants from such electronics titans as GE and RCA, as well as from then-small firms like Texas Instruments and Sony. Published by Bell Labs and subsequently by D. Van Nostrand in a revised edition, the proceedings of the first symposium - The Transistor fondly recognized as "Ma Bell's Cookbook" - became the bible of the dynamic semiconductor industry that emerged in the 1950s.



Contemporary Documents

The Transistor: Selected Reference Material on Characteristics and Applications. Prepared by Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. for Western Electric Co., Inc. (New York 1951)

F. J. Biondi, H. E. Bridgers, J. H. Scaff, and J. N. Shive, eds., Transistor Technology, Vols. I, II, and III (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1958).

More Information

Morton, Jack A. "From Research to Technology," International Science and Technology (May 1964) pp. 82-92.

Hornbeck, J. "The Transistor," in F. M. Smits, ed., A History of Science and Engineering in the Bell System: Electronics Technology (1925-75) (AT&T Bell Laboratories, 1985) pp. 1-100.

Misa, Thomas J. "Military Needs, Commercial Realities, and the Development of the Transistor, 1948-58," in Merritt Roe Smith, ed., Military Enterprise and Technological Change (MIT Press, 1985) pp. 253-87.

Riordan, M. & Hoddeson, L. Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997) pp. 168-217.

Riordan, Michael. "How Bell Labs Missed the Microchip," IEEE Spectrum (December 2006) pp. 36-41.