Computer History MuseumSemiconductor History

1954 - Silicon Transistors Offer Superior Operating Characteristics

Morris Tanenbaum fabricates the first silicon transistor at Bell Labs but Texas Instruments' engineers build and market the first commercial devices.

For the first six years of their existence, transistors had all been made with germanium. Although this element is much easier to work with than silicon and allows higher-frequency operation, solid-state devices made with it have far worse leakage currents in the "off" condition - an anathema for computer logic. They are also restricted to 0 to 70°C operation, which limits their use in rugged applications. Silicon devices that function from -55 to 125°C became possible after Dupont began supplying high-purity "semiconductor-grade" material. In January 1954 Bell Labs chemist Morris Tanenbaum fashioned the first silicon transistor using a variation on Morgan Sparks and Gordon Teal's grown-junction technique.

But the Labs did not pursue the process further, thinking it unattractive for commercial production, which allowed Texas Instruments (TI) to claim credit for this breakthrough several months later. Having left Bell Labs to organize a research lab at TI, Teal hired a team of scientists and engineers led by chemist Willis Adcock to work on silicon transistors. Employing high-purity Dupont silicon, they made their first successful silicon transistor - an n-p-n structure using the grown-junction technique - on April 14, 1954. Unaware of Tanenbaum's work, Teal presented this achievement on May 10 at an Institute of Radio Engineers conference in Dayton, Ohio, creating a sensation by announcing that silicon transistors were in production and available for sale. With little competition, TI dominated the silicon-transistor market for the next few years and made significant inroads into Raytheon's position as the largest merchant market supplier of transistors. By the end of the 1950s, silicon had become the industry's preferred semiconductor material.



Contemporary Documents

Tanenbaum, Morris. Bell Labs Notebook No. 25505, page 30 (January 26, 1954).

Jones, Morton. Texas Instruments Engineering Notebook No. 9614 (6 May 1954) pp. 46.

Teal, G. K. "Some recent developments in silicon and germanium materials and devices," Presented at the National Conference on Airborne Electronics Dayton, Ohio (May 10, 1954)

Adcock, W. A., Jones, M. E., Thornhill, J. W., and Jackson, E. D. "Silicon transistor," Proceedings of the IRE, Vol. 42 (July 1954) p.1192.

Tanenbaum, Morris et al. "Silicon n-p-n Grown Junction Transistors," Journal of Applied Physics, Vol. 26, No. 9 (June 1955) pp. 686-692.

Other Oral Histories

Adcock, Willis an oral history conducted in 2000 by David Morton, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Tanenbaum, Morris an oral history conducted in 1999 by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Teal, Gordon K. an oral history conducted in 1991 by Andrew Goldstein, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

More Information

Riordan, M. & Hoddeson, L. Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997) pp. 206-209.

Riordan, Michael. "The Lost History of the Transistor," IEEE Spectrum (May 2004) pp. 44-49