History of Transistor: Who Invented the First and Its Story

In the River of Technology, the Birth of the Transistor Marks Humanity’s Collective Leap into the Information Age. This minute semiconductor device, with its astounding evolution from the early experiments of the 20th century to the 21st-century realm of nanotechnology, has been a witness to humanity’s exploration and innovation in the field of electronics. The development of transistors not only transformed computer science but also profoundly shaped our modern lives. Now, let’s journey back in time to explore the history of transistor development and delve into some intriguing stories from that era!

transistor development timeline

The Birth of the First Transistor

In 1929, engineer Lilienfeld made the initial foray into the transistor field, achieving some progress. However, due to limitations in the purification process, materials essential for transistor manufacturing couldn’t be extracted, making it a theoretical breakthrough.

The first transistor emerged in 1947, invented by the Bell Labs team of Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain. Using germanium as the semiconductor material and employing a point-contact structure, although it fell short in size, integration, power consumption, and performance compared to modern silicon transistors, this technology had a tremendous impact at the time, indirectly opening the doors to integration and offering scientists a glimpse into future possibilities. The inventors of the first transistor, Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain, were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics, with Shockley often referred to as the father of the transistor.

first transistor
A copy of the first transistor

In modern electronics, integrated circuits are one of the most discussed topics, with transistors serving as their fundamental components. It can be said that without the birth of the first transistor, there would be no chips, and we wouldn’t be in the electronic age we are now.

Digital circuits, centered around logical languages, construct logical functions for devices. These functions are based on 0 and 1, and transistors perfectly serve this purpose—controlling their opening and closing through electrical signals to achieve the switching of off and on, representing 0 and 1.

However, this is just the beginning of the story. From point-contact transistors to field-effect transistors, from silicon materials to III-V compound semiconductors, the development journey of transistors is filled with twists and innovations.

Story Behind the Transistor

Father of the Transistor - William Shockley

William Shockley

William Shockley was born on February 13, 1910, in London, UK, and immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of three. Growing up in Pasadena, California, he completed his undergraduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in solid-state physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he later became a faculty member. During World War II, Shockley joined Bell Labs, contributing to war-related research projects and collaborating with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in developing the point-contact transistor. However, his ambition went beyond this accomplishment, aiming to create even more advanced transistors and bring them to the market. As chip manufacturing technology matured, the focus shifted to silicon, and with the advent of the first portable radio using transistors, Shockley saw the future business opportunities.

In 1955, Shockley returned to his hometown, Santa Clara Valley, supported by the prestigious Beckman Foundation due to his high standing in the scientific community. He quickly attracted a group of talented and technically skilled individuals. At this moment, it was as if a new star was rising in the semiconductor sky of Silicon Valley. However, as in many life stories, unexpected twists occurred during this process.

Traitorous Eight

Traitorous Eight

We all know that the rise of Silicon Valley is closely linked to the events involving the Traitorous Eight, which included Shockley. Despite being an outstanding scientist in transistor research, Shockley was not a proficient business manager. This ultimately led to a significant event known as the ‘Traitorous Eight,’ involving N. Noyce, R. Moore, J. Blank, E. Kliner, J. Hoerni, J. Last, S. Boberts, and V. Grinich. This event marked a major transformation in Silicon Valley.

Fairchild Semiconductor

Fairchild Semiconductor

After securing venture capital, the Traitorous Eight swiftly established Fairchild Semiconductor. Under a new management model, Fairchild Semiconductor thrived, achieving profitability in less than six months and obtaining two crucial invention patents: planar processing and integrated circuit technology.

During this period, Fairchild Semiconductor was vibrant, with the semiconductor industry appearing as a vast gold mine. The company actively explored opportunities, and within a short period, it became profitable. However, investor Sherman Fairchild held the majority of the shares, and simultaneously, the company’s profits were redirected to the East Coast to support Fairchild Photographic Equipment Corporation. This caused unease among Fairchild Semiconductor employees, triggering a new wave of departures for entrepreneurial ventures. Meanwhile, the transistor industry was rapidly advancing.

Transistor Development Timeline

  • 1926: The discovery of the thermionic emission effect laid the foundation for future semiconductor research.
  • 1945: The concept of the field-effect transistor provided direction for future transistor designs.
  • 1947: The first point-contact transistor was invented.
  • 1951: The invention of gallium arsenide transistors improved transistor efficiency.
  • 1952: The first commercially available transistor radio was introduced.
  • 1954: Silicon transistors emerged, replacing germanium transistors as the mainstream.
  • 1956: The “Kilby Plan” proposed microelectronics and integrated circuit technology.
  • 1960: The concept of the metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor laid the foundation for later CMOS technology.
  • 1965: “Moore’s Law” predicted the trend of transistor integration doubling every 18 to 24 months.
  • 1971: The world’s first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004, was released, marking the beginning of the microprocessor era.
  • 1983: MOSFET technology reduced transistor size to 1 micron, improving integration and performance.
  • 2010: MOSFET technology further reduced the size to 22 nanometers.
  • 2020s: FinFET technology and advanced process technologies (such as 7nm, 5nm) became mainstream.

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