Transistor (Inventions)

The invention: A miniature electronic device, comprising a tiny semiconductor and multiple electrical contacts, used in circuits as an amplifier, detector, or switch, that revolutionized electronics in the mid-twentieth century.

The people behind the invention:

William B. Shockley (1910-1989), an American physicist who led
the Bell Laboratories team that produced the first transistors Akio Morita (1921-1999), a Japanese physicist and engineer who
was the cofounder of the Sony electronics company Masaru Ibuka (1908-1997), a Japanese electrical engineer and
businessman who cofounded Sony with Morita

The Birth of Sony

In 1952, a Japanese engineer visiting the United States learned that the Western Electric company was granting licenses to use its transistor technology. He was aware of the development of this device and thought that it might have some commercial applications. Masaru Ibuka told his business partner in Japan about the opportunity, and they decided to raise the $25,000 required to obtain a license. The following year, his partner, Akio Morita, traveled to New York City and concluded negotiations with Western Electric. This was a turning point in the history of the Sony company and in the electronics industry, for transistor technology was to open profitable new fields in home entertainment.
The origins of the Sony corporation were in the ruins of postwar Japan. The Tokyo Telecommunications Company was incorporated in 1946 and manufactured a wide range of electrical equipment based on the existing vacuum tube technology. Morita and Ibuka were involved in research and development of this technology during the war and intended to put it to use in the peacetime economy. In the United States and Europe, electrical engineers who had done the same sort of research founded companies to build advanced audio products such as high-performance amplifiers, but Morita and Ibuka did not have the resources to make such sophisticated products and concentrated on simple items such as electric water heaters and small electric motors for record players.
In addition to their experience as electrical engineers, both men were avid music lovers, as a result of their exposure to American-built phonographs and gramophones exported to Japan in the early twentieth century. They decided to combine their twin interests by devising innovative audio products and looked to the new field of magnetic recording as a likely area for exploitation. They had learned about tape recorders from technical journals and had seen them in use by the American occupation force.
They developed a reel-to-reel tape recorder and introduced it in 1950. It was a large machine with vacuum tube amplifiers, so heavy that they transported it by truck. Although it worked well, they had a hard job selling it. Ibuka went to the United States in 1952 partly on a fact-finding mission and partly to get some ideas about marketing the tape recorder to schools and businesses. It was not seen as a consumer product.
Ibuka and Morita had read about the invention of the transistor in Western Electric’s laboratories shortly after the war. John Bardeen and Walter H. Brattain had discovered that a semiconducting material could be used to amplify or control electric current. Their point contact transistor of 1948 was a crude laboratory apparatus that served as the basis for further research. The project was taken over by William B. Shockley, who had suggested the theory of the transistor effect. A new generation of transistors was devised; they were simpler and more efficient than the original. The junction transistors were the first to go into production.

Ongoing Research

Bell Laboratories had begun transistor research because Western Electric, one of its parent companies along with American Telephone and Telegraph, was interested in electronic amplification. This was seen as a means to increase the strength of telephone signals traveling over long distances, a job carried out by vacuum tubes. The junction transistor was developed as an amplifier. Western Electric thought that the hearing aid was the only consumer product that could be based on it and saw the transistor solely as a telecommunications technology. The Japanese purchased the license with only the slightest understanding of the workings of semiconductors and despite the belief that transistors could not be used at the high frequencies associated with radio.
The first task of Ibuka and Morita was to develop a high-frequency transistor. Once this was accomplished, in 1954, a method had to be found to manufacture it cheaply. Transistors were made from crystals, which had to be grown and doped with impurities to form different layers of conductivity. This was not an exact science, and Sony engineers found that the failure rate for high-frequency transistors was very high. This increased costs and put the entire project into doubt, because the adoption of transistors was based on simplicity, reliability, and low cost.
The introduction of the first Sony transistor radio, the TR-55, in 1955 was the result of basic research combined with extensive industrial engineering. Morita admitted that its sound was poor, but because it was the only transistor radio in Japan, it sold well. These were not cheap products, nor were they particularly compact. The selling point was that they consumed much less battery power than the old portable radios.
The TR-55 carried the brand name Sony, a relative of the Soni magnetic tape made by the company and a name influenced by the founders’ interest in sound. Morita and Ibuka had already decided that the future of their company would be in international trade and wanted its name to be recognized all over the world. In 1957, they changed the company’s name from Tokyo Telecomunications Engineering to Sony.
The first product intended for the export market was a small transistor radio. Ibuka was disappointed at the large size of the TR-55 because one of the advantages of the transistor over the vacuum tube was supposed to be smaller size. He saw a miniature radio as a promising consumer product and gave his engineers the task of designing one small enough to fit into his shirt pocket.
All elements of the radio had to be reduced in size: amplifier, transformer, capacitor, and loudspeaker. Like many other Japanese manufacturers, Sony bought many of the component parts of its products from small manufacturers, all of which had to be cajoled
into decreasing the size of their parts. Morita and Ibuka stated that the hardest task in developing this new product was negotiating with the subcontractors. Finally, the Type 63 pocket transistor radio—the “Transistor Six”—was introduced in 1957.


When the transistor radio was introduced, the market for radios was considered to be saturated. People had rushed to buy them when they were introduced in the 1920′s, and by the time of the Great Depression, the majority of American households had one. Improvements had been made to the receiver and more attractive radio/phonograph console sets had been introduced, but these developments did not add many new customers. The most manufacturers could hope for was the replacement market with a few sales as children moved out of their parents’ homes and established new households.
The pocket radio created a new market. It could be taken anywhere and used at any time. Its portability was its major asset, and it became an indispensable part of youth-oriented popular culture of the 1950′s and 1960′s. It provided an outlet for the crowded airwaves of commercial AM radio and was the means to bring the new music of rock and roll to a mass audience.
As soon as Sony introduced the Transistor Six, it began to redesign it to reduce manufacturing cost. Subsequent transistor radios were smaller and cheaper. Sony sold them by the millions, and millions more were made by other companies under brand names such as “Somy” and “Sonny.” By 1960, more than twelve million transistor radios had been sold.
The transistor radio was the product that established Sony as an international audio concern. Morita had resisted the temptation to make radios for other companies to sell under their names. Exports of Sony radios increased name recognition and established a bridgehead in the United States, the biggest market for electronic consumer products. Morita planned to follow the radio with other transistorized products.
The television had challenged radio’s position as the mechanical entertainer in the home. Like the radio, it stood in nearly every

William Shockley

William Shockley’s reputation contains extremes. He helped invent one of the basic devices supporting modern technological society, the transistor. He also tried to revive one of the most infamous social theories, eugenics.
His parents, mining engineer William Hillman Shockley, and surveyor May Bradford Shockley, were on assignment in England in 1910 when he was born. The family returned to Northern California when the younger William was three, and they schooled him at home until he was eight. He acquired an early interest in physics from a neighbor who taught at Stanford University. Shockley pursed that interest at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which awarded him a doctorate in 1936.
Shockley went to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories in the same year. While trying to design a vacuum tube that could amplify current, it occurred to him that solid state components might work better than the fragile tubes. He experimented with the semiconductors germanium and silicon, but the materials available were too impure for his purpose. World War II interrupted the experiments, and he worked instead to improve radar and anti-submarine devices for the military. Back at Bell Labs in 1945, Shockley teamed with theorist John Bardeen and experimentalist Walter Brattain. Two years later they succeeded in making the first amplifier out of semiconductor materials and called it a transistor (short for transfer resistor). Its effect on the electronics industry was revolutionary, and the three shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their achievement.
In the mid-1950′s Shockley left Bell Labs to start Shockley Transistor, then switched to academia in 1963, becoming Stanford University’s Alexander M. Poniatoff Professor of Engineering and Applied Science. He grew interested in the relation between race and intellectual ability. Teaching himself psychology and genetics, he conceived the theory that Caucasians were inherently more intelligent than other races because of their genetic make-up. When he lectured on his brand of eugenics, he was denounced by the public as a racist and by scientists for shoddy thinking. Shockley retired in 1975 and died in 1989.
American living room and used the same vacuum tube amplification unit. The transistorized portable television set did for images what the transistor radio did for sound. Sony was the first to develop an all-transistor television, in 1959. At a time when the trend in television receivers was toward larger screens, Sony produced extremely small models with eight-inch screens. Ignoring the marketing experts who said that Americans would never buy such a product, Sony introduced these models into the United States in 1960 and found that there was a huge demand for them.
As in radio, the number of television stations on the air and broadcasts for the viewer to choose from grew. A personal television or radio gave the audience more choices. Instead of one machine in the family room, there were now several around the house. The transistorization of mechanical entertainers allowed each family member to choose his or her own entertainment. Sony learned several important lessons from the success of the transistor radio and television. The first was that small size and low price could create new markets for electronic consumer products. The second was that constant innovation and cost reduction were essential to keep ahead of the numerous companies that produced cheaper copies of original Sony products.
In 1962, Sony introduced a tiny television receiver with a five-inch screen. In the 1970′s and 1980′s, it produced even smaller models, until it had a TV set that could sit in the palm of the hand—the Video Walkman. Sony’s scientists had developed an entirely new television screen that worked on a new principle and gave better color resolution; the company was again able to blend the fruits of basic scientific research with innovative industrial engineering.
The transistorized amplifier unit used in radio and television sets was applied to other products, including amplifiers for record players and tape recorders. Japanese manufacturers were slow to take part in the boom in high-fidelity audio equipment that began in the United States in the 1950′s. The leading manufacturers of high-quality audio components were small American companies based on the talents of one engineer, such as Avery Fisher or Henry Koss. They sold expensive amplifiers and loudspeakers to audiophiles. The transistor reduced the size, complexity, and price of these components. The Japanese took the lead devising complete audio units based on transistorized integrated circuits, thus developing the basic home stereo.
In the 1960′s, companies such as Sony and Matsushita dominated the market for inexpensive home stereos. These were the basic radio/phonograph combination, with two detached speakers. The finely crafted wooden consoles that had been the standard for the home phonograph were replaced by small plastic boxes. The Japanese were also quick to exploit the opportunities of the tape cassette. The Philips compact cassette was enthusiastically adopted by Japanese manufacturers and incorporated into portable tape recorders. This was another product with its ancestry in the transistor radio. As more of them were sold, the price dropped, encouraging more consumers to buy. The cassette player became as commonplace in American society in the 1970′s as the transistor radio had been in the 1960′s.

The Walkman

The transistor took another step in miniaturization in the Sony Walkman, a personal stereo sound system consisting of a cassette player and headphones. It was based on the same principles as the transistor radio and television. Sony again confounded marketing experts by creating a new market for a personal electronic entertainer. In the ten years following the introduction of the Walkman in 1979, Sony sold fifty million units worldwide, half of those in the United States. Millions of imitation products were sold by other companies.
Sony’s acquisition of the Western Electric transistor technology was a turning point in the fortunes of that company and of Japanese manufacturers in general. Less than ten years after suffering defeat in a disastrous war, Japanese industry served notice that it had lost none of its engineering capabilities and innovative skills. The production of the transistor radio was a testament to the excellence of Japanese research and development. Subsequent products proved that the Japanese had an uncanny sense of the potential market for consumer products based on transistor technology. The ability to incorporate solid-state electronics into innovative home entertainment products allowed Japanese manufacturers to dominate the world market for electronic consumer products and to eliminate most of their American competitors.
The little transistor radio was the vanguard of an invasion of new products unparalleled in economic history. Japanese companies such as Sony and Panasonic later established themselves at the leading edge of digital technology, the basis of a new generation of entertainment products. Instead of Japanese engineers scraping together the money to buy a license for an American technology, the great American companies went to Japan to license compact disc and other digital technologies.
See also Cassette recording; Color television; FM radio; Radio; Television; Transistor radio; Videocassette recorder; Walkman cassette player.

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