Archives:Minority Carriers and the First Two Transistors


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The first transistor-the "point-contact transistor, invented at Bell Labs in December 1947 by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain-had almost no commercial impact in the decade following its invention. Only one firm seriously attempted to produce such a transistor in quantity-the Western Electric Company, the manufacturing division of American Telephone and Telegraph, which began using the device in such telephone applications as direct dialing as early as 1952. It was the second transistor-the "p-n junction transistor," which William Shockley conceived in January 1948-that became "the first technologically important device of the solid state era," as he put it. The successful manufacture of the junction transistor and its offspring stimulated the exponential growth of the semiconductor industry. By contributing crucially to the rise of such industry giants as Texas Instruments, SONY and Fairchild Semiconductor during the explosive fifties, the junction transistor made Silicon Valley possible. Given this impact, it is surprIsIng how little scholarship has been devoted to the history of the junction transistor, and how many important historical issues about the device have not even been explored. At the 1992 Indianapolis meeting of the American Physical Society, Nick Holonyak pursued one of them-the scientific understanding of "minority carrier injection," a physical process that was critical to the invention of the junction transistor. Whereas Shockley claimed sole authorship of this idea, Holonyak argued on the basis of several pieces of indirect evidence that Bardeen deserves the credit. In this paper we reexamine the controversy about the origins of this concept, using more immediate documentary evidence from laboratory notebooks, patent applications, scientific articles written in 1947-48, and interviews conducted with participants.


Michael Riordan & Lillian Hoddeson, “Minority Carriers and the First Two Transistors,” in Facets: New Perspectivies on the History of Semiconductors, ed. Andrew Goldstein & William Aspray (New Brunswick: IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 1997), 1-33.