1947: Invention of the Point-Contact Transistor

John Bardeen & Walter Brattain achieve transistor action in a germanium point-contact device in December 1947.

Encouraged by Executive Vice President Mervin Kelly, William Shockley returned from wartime assignments in early 1945 to begin organizing a solid-state physics group at Bell Labs. Among other things, this group pursued research on semiconductor replacements for unreliable vacuum tubes and electromechanical switches then used in the Bell Telephone System. That April he conceived a "field-effect" amplifier and switch based on the germanium and silicon technology developed during the war, but it failed to work as intended. A year later theoretical physicist John Bardeen suggested that electrons on the semiconductor surface might be blocking penetration of electric fields into the material, negating any effects. With experimental physicist Walter Brattain, Bardeen began researching the behavior of these "surface states."

On December 16, 1947, their research culminated in the first successful semiconductor amplifier. Bardeen and Brattain applied two closely-spaced gold contacts held in place by a plastic wedge to the surface of a small slab of high-purity germanium. The voltage on one contact modulated the current flowing through the other, amplifying the input signal up to 100 times. On December 23 they demonstrated their device to lab officials - in what Shockley deemed "a magnificent Christmas present."

Named the "transistor" by electrical engineer John Pierce, Bell Labs publicly announced the revolutionary solid-state device at a press conference in New York on June 30, 1948. A spokesman claimed that "it may have far-reaching significance in electronics and electrical communication." Despite its delicate mechanical construction, many thousands of units were produced in a metal cartridge package as the Bell Labs "Type A" transistor.

  • Brattain, Walter. Bell Labs logbook (December 1947) pp. 7-8, 24.
  • John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, "The Transistor, a Semi-Conductor Triode," Physical Review 74 (15 July 1948) pp. 230-231.
  • Bardeen, J. and Brattain, W. "Three-Electrode Circuit Element Utilizing Semiconductor Materials," U. S. Patent 2,524,035 (Filed June 17, 1948, issued Oct. 3, 1950).
  • Becker J. A., and Shive, J. N. "The Transistor - A New Semiconductor Amplifier," Electrical Engineering Vol 68 (March 1949) pp. 215-221.
  • Bardeen, John. "Semiconductor Research Leading to the Point-Contact Transistor" Nobel Lectures, Physics 1942-1962, (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1964).
  • Augarten, Stan. "The Birth of Modern Electronics," State Of The Art: A Photographic History of the Integrated Circuit. (New Haven & New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983) p.2
  • Hoddeson, Lillian. "The Discovery of the Point-Contact Transistor," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1981) pp. 43-76.
  • Holonyak, Nick. Electrical Engineer, an oral history conducted in 1993 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.
  • Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997) pp. 115-141 and 155-167.
  • Interview with John Bardeen by Lillian Hoddeson on May 12, 1977, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, 20740.
  • Interview with Walter H. Brattain, 1964 January 1 and 28 May 1974 by Alan Holden and others, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD 20740.
  • Interview with William Shockley by Lillian Hoddeson on September 10, 1974, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD 20740.