Year of Invention: 1947
What Is It? An electronic device that uses solid chips of semiconductor mate-
rial to replace the functions of bulky vacuum tubes.
Who Invented It? John Bardeen and William Shockley (in New Jersey)
Transistors made it possible to squeeze more electronic components and electronic logic power into a single cell phone than existed in the whole of England at the end of World War II. Transistors made thousands of other products and inventions possible. Calculators, personal computers, televisions, iPods®, Walkmans®, car ignition and control, robots, satellites—every electronic device in production uses transistors.
The field of electronics emerged in the early twentieth century with military advances (sonar and radar) and commercial advances (radio and television). By the early 1940s, digital computers had crept into existence. However, those early electronic devices depended on vacuum tubes—bulky, heat-producing, expensive, energy-guzzling vacuum tubes. Old-style radios and televisions used dozens of them. Early computers used thousands.
John Bardeen taught theoretical physics at the University of Minnesota from 1938 to 1941. There, as a 30-year-old assistant professor, he found the first research question that stirred both his intellectual curiosity and his passion. He discovered the mystery of superconductivity. Superconductivity, discovered by Kammerlingh Onnes, is the state where, at temperatures a few degrees above absolute zero, many metals lose all resistance to the flow of electricity. A current, once started, will flow forever.
When, in mid-1947, Bell Laboratories (a high-tech communications and electronics research plant) hired Bardeen, he hoped to pursue superconductivity. However, he was asked to join forces with William Shockley and Walter Brattain, who were studying the possible use of semiconductor materials in electronics.