Electronic Design

William B. Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter H. Brattain

Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain (2002)

As World War II drew to a close, Mervin Kelly, president of Bell Telephone Laboratories, decided that a major reorganization was needed to turn Bell Labs into a top-notch basic research facility. One result was the creation of the Solid-State Physics group. Shockley, one group leader, was a Bell Labs physicist since 1936. He soon created a subgroup to focus on research into semiconductors used in radar systems during the war. Brattain had been employed at Bell Labs since 1929 and joined Shockley’s subgroup along with Bardeen, a physicist and former professor hired after the war. In 1947, Bardeen and Brattain designed a solid-state amplification circuit whose key components were a slab of germanium and two gold point contacts just fractions of a millimeter apart. Brattain discovered that putting a ribbon of gold around a plastic triangle, slicing it through at one point, and pressing the point of the triangle gently down onto the germanium created a dramatic amplification of electric current. Thus was the first point-contact transistor made. But two months later, Shockley stunned Bardeen and Brattain with a significantly improved design. It consisted of three semiconductor layers stacked together, with current flowing through the semiconductor material instead of along the surface. As voltage on the middle layer was adjusted up and down, it could turn current in the three-layer “sandwich” on and off at will. Introduced in 1949, the solid-state transistor could amplify an electrical signal much more efficiently than a bulky vacuum tube. It became the building block for all modern electronics and the foundation for microchip and computer technology. For their work, Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956.

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