(WHTM) — It’s one of the first things you learn when dealing with electricity – don’t get your electronics wet or all sorts of terrible things will happen.
But on November 17, 1947, a scientist did just that, and revolutionized the world.
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This story actually starts in 1906, when inventor Lee De Forest invented the triode vacuum tube. This device could be used to amplify electrical signals which, among other things, made long-distance telephone service across the country practical.
But the vacuum tube had its drawbacks.
For one thing, it was a power hog, and the glowing elements in the tube put out a lot of heat. (In fact, they had to warm up for a few minutes to be useful.) This meant they had to be large enough to dissipate the heat, they were expensive to make, and somewhat unreliable. And with big, bulky tubes, you could make electronics just so small, and no smaller.
Enter Mervin Kelly, the Director of Research at Bell Laboratories, the scientific brain trust of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). He saw a possible alternative to vacuum tubes if he could just unlock the potential of semiconductors, materials that could switch from being non-conducting or conducting. He assembled a team headed by theoretician Bill Shockley and set them to work on the problem.
They tried design after design, with results that ranged from failure to dismal failure. In 1946 theoretical physicist John Bardeen suggested that electrons drawn to the semiconductor surface were somehow getting trapped, making them unable to carry a charge. Then, on December 17, 1947, experimental physicist Walter Brattain put the apparatus he was experimenting with into a tub of water. It worked! It didn’t work particularly well, but that was a big step up from not working at all. The water, an electrolyte, neutralized the effect trapping the electrons.
On December 23, 1947, they demonstrated the first working transistor to Bell Lab executives. Within a decade, transistors had almost entirely replaced vacuum tubes.
In 1956 John Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain, and William Bradford Shockley were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”.