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January 2018
A parallel history of the transistor

A parallel history of the transistor

22 January 2018

The humble transistor is the basis for many of today’s technologies, from telephone networks to laptops and smartphones – so much so that it has been called the “nerve cell” of the modern age. But how many people know that the transistor was invented not once, but twice?

History remembers December 23, 1947 as the birthday of the transistor when three engineers – William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain from Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey – successfully demonstrated its viability. They were trying to understand the behaviour of electrons at the interface between a metal and a semiconductor and discovered that by putting two point contacts very close to one another on the surface of germanium slab, they could make a three terminal amplifying device - the first “point contact” transistor. Point contact transistors were, however, very soon superseded when Shockley developed the junction transistor, which for most applications had superior characteristics. Thus the transistor was, in large part, Shockley’s creation. His junction transistor, which was built from thin slices of p and n type semiconductor material, was easier to understand theoretically and could be produced more efficiently.

Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain were eventually awarded a joint Nobel Prize “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”

But they weren’t the only people who invented the transistor! Two German physicists, Dr Herbert Mataré and Heinrich Welker independently came up with a very similar device whilst working at  the Westinghouse Laboratory in Paris. They called their device the “transistron”, and arguably it predated the transistor developed by Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain.

For a while Mataré continued to develop transistor technology at Westinghouse. Soon, however, the company closed the laboratory and called a halt to further research on semiconductors. The wind of change was definitely blowing in France and Westinghouse’s interest had shifted from telecommunications to nuclear power.

As a result, Mataré moved back to Germany to join transistor firm Intermetall. In 1953 at Düsseldorf Radio Fair, Mataré’s invention found a popular and practical application when Intermetall’s point-contact transistors were used in the world’s first transistor radio. This landmark preceded the first American transistor radio created by Texas Instruments by more than a year!

Even though he had found himself on the wrong side of commercial success with his solid state discoveries, Mataré remained positive and in 2003 he acknowledged the success of Bell Labs scientists by saying in the New York Times: ‘’I don’t want to take anything away from Bell Labs, I was very amazed by their work. The Bells Labs transistor Nobel laureates - John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain and William B. Shockley, were brilliant”. 

Unfortunately, his contribution to the field was once more overlooked when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the transistor with a special publication, which did not even mention his work in Paris. Mataré went on to live to the ripe old age of 99 working in his adoptive country of USA with the same passion he had always had. He continued his research and undertook consultancy work even in his later years, proving that he was an extraordinary physicist and inventor.