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Michael John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley worked together at Bell Labs in the 1940s for a relatively brief period of time. But their collaboration resulted in one of the most important inventions of the century: the transistor. This device would transform the electronics world and make a major impact on the architecture of computers, helping to put them into the mainstream just a few years later.

Shockley was born in London on Feb. 13, 1910 to American parents. They soon moved back to Palo Alto, Calif., where Shockley spent much of his childhood. In 1925, after Shockley's father passed away his mother moved the family to Hollywood. Shockley entered the California Institute of Technology in 1928 where he majored in physics. In 1936 he earned a Ph.D. from MIT. He joined AT&T's bell Labs in New York, later moving to New Jersey, and gained a distinguished reputation as an innovative researcher, designing in 1939 one of the first nuclear reactors with colleague James Fisk. He joined the Army Air Corps during WWII and won a National Medal of Merit after designing the training for the American bomber crews. After the war, he returned to Bell Labs, where he was charged with the job of building a solid state amplifier.

BardeenBardeen was born May 23, 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin and entered the University of Wisconsin at the age of 15 as an engineering student. He earned a masterís degree in electrical engineering and went on to work for the Gulf Oil Company as a geophysicist. Later he returned to school, pursuing and completing a Ph.D. in physics at Princeton in 1935. He worked as a Fellow at Harvard and later worked for the University of Minnesota until World War II began when he was transferred to the Naval Ordnance Labs to help the Navy develop protection mechanisms for ships and submarines. Shockley asked him to work for his Bell Labs research group in 1945.

BrattainBrattain was born in Amoy, China on Feb. 10, 1902. His father had a teaching job there. Soon the family moved back to the state of Washington. Brattain majored in physics and math at Whitman College and went on to the University of Oregon where he earned a Masters degree, and then to the University of Minnesota where he completed his Ph.D. In 1929 Brattain began working for Bell Labs. He was assigned to Shockley's group, where his skills in experimentation would complement Bardeenís talent for theory.

Together the team worked on research related to the behavior of crystals as semi-conductors. Before the transistor, computers filled huge, refrigerated rooms designed to keep cool the thousands of hot vacuum tubes needed to keep them running. These tubes were used as valves to control the flow of electrons in radios and telephone-relay systems. Crystals, particularly crystals that can conduct a bit of electricity, could do the job faster, more reliably and with one million times less power, but the challenge was to figure out how to get them to function as electronic valves.

Bardeen and Brittain were often left to work on their ideas on their own with Shockley acting as a supervisor. In December of 1947, they completed what was called the "point-contact transistor." The device, which conducted as well as insulated, was designed to switch and modulate current, able to act as a transmitter and a resistor. It consisted of a piece of gold foil wrapped around a plastic knife, pressed against a block of germanium that had an electrical connection at its base. Though the design of this early device may now seem primitive, it was at the time, a brand new and immensely more efficient kind of valve to allow, restrict and amplify the flow of electricity. It would allow computer work to be done at the speed of light and make it possible for electronic devices to be built smaller, lighter and cheaper.

Once the prototype was complete the three men reportedly argued when Shockley began a campaign to patent the transistor under his name. In the meantime he also began working on an improved model of a transistor, coming up with the "sandwich transistor," or junction transistor, within a month's time. This variety would be easier to mass produce and is still used today in some applications.

The three men separated soon after the transistor was complete, and Bell Labs struggled over how to assign credit to each member of the team. Bardeen and Brattain took out a patent for their transistor while Shockley applied for a patent for the transistor effect and a transistor amplifier. Eventually Brattain asked to be transferred to a different lab, and later he left to become a professor at Whitman College. Soon after Bardeen also left and began teaching at the University of Illinois. Shockley would form Shockley Semiconductor in what would later become Silicon Valley. He also began teaching at Stanford University. Brattain and Bardeen remained close lifelong friends, but they would never restore a friendship with Shockley.

In 1956, all three of the men came together for a cordial celebration in Stockholm when they received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the transistor. Later Bardeen would win a second Nobel for his superconductivity theories. He died in 1991. Shockley died in 1989, and Brattain in 1987.

[December 2003]

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