Transistor first reported as “Little Brain Cell”#

2023 Nov 28

Last week I listened to the Latent Space interview with “That SemiAnalysis Guy”. His name is Dylan Patel but I’m going to keep calling him That SemiAnalysis Guy because it tickles my brain. The interview was great! It motivated me to finally learn more about the hardware industry. At the end of the interview That SemiAnalysis Guy recommends Chip War by Chris Miller, who will hereby be called “That Chip War Guy”. The book was on my radar but I never got around to reading it because I was pretty turned off by the clickbaity title. I’m only 50 pages in but it seems like the book is just a well-researched history of the semiconductor industry…?

I love it when historians mention their primary sources. That Chip War Guy mentions some of the earliest reporting on the transistor, back in 1948:

When Bell Labs held a press conference in June 1948 to announce that its scientists had invented the transistor, it wasn’t easy to understand why these wired blocks of germanium merited a special announcement. The New York Times buried the story on page 46. Time magazine did better, reporting the invention under the headline “Little Brain Cell.”

I dug around a little bit and found the full text. It’s pretty short so I’ll save you a click and reproduce it here in full:

Vacuum tubes are the brain cells of modern technology. Each year, as machines take on more complex jobs, more & more vacuum tubes are needed. But they are tricky to manufacture: they are usually both bulky and fragile. They have to warm up before they can start operating, and they need a continuous current to keep their filaments hot. The men who design electronic nervous systems would like a vacuum tube without these faults.

Last week Bell Telephone Laboratories demonstrated a small, simple device that can do many of the jobs now done by vacuum tubes. Called a “Transistor,” it has no vacuum, no glass envelope. It requires no heating current and can start working immediately without a warmup.

The Transistor is a slim metal cylinder about an inch long. Inside are two hair-thin wires whose points press, two-thousandths of an inch apart, on a pinhead of germanium. A feeble current in the “input” wire controls a much larger current flowing from the “output” wire. Such “amplification” is the essential property of vacuum tubes. The Transistor works on a different principle (by changing the conductivity of the germanium), but it amplifies the input current as much as 100 times.

Transistors are not in production yet, but Bell scientists, to show what their little brain cells can do, demonstrated a radio receiver with vacuum tubes replaced by Transistors. Though not very powerful, it worked fine. Probably the Transistor’s first practical assignment will be to amplify currents in telephone circuits, a job now done by vacuum tubes.

It’s fascinating to me that we were thinking of this stuff as “electronic nervous systems” and “little brain cells” from the git-go.

I was also able to find a scan of the magazine. The web is a vast treasure trove of historical content.