Ira Flatow on the set.

Act I:
Hell's Bells Laboratory

Act II:
Miracle Month

Act III:
Intrigue and Glory

Act IV:
Smaller, Cheaper, Faster


Final Script: International Version

Written by: Gino Del Guercio, Ira Flatow


"Let’s Dance," Best of Benny Goodman. Montage of archival images and recreations



Ira at the laboratory recreation leaning over some test equipment.



Open/Title: Transistorized!

Ira Flatow Voice Over: It was a time of joy and anticipation. The Allies had won the war. The baby boom was well underway. And a team of scientists and engineers was about to invent the key to the Information Age..

Ralph Bown: We call it the transistor.

Standup: Hi. I’m Ira Flatow. The transistor was probably the most important invention of the 20th Century. And the story behind the invention is one of clashing egos and top-secret research. Stick around.



Hell’s Bells Laboratory

Recreation: The Public Announcement

The screen is dark, the first rapid drum beats of Benny Goodman’s "Sing, sing, sing" begin. Fade up. A 1940’s era car screeches to a halt at the curb. Well-worn shoes hit the pavement running. A newspaper reporter, late for a news conference, runs into a lobby and skids into the open elevator.

Exterior of first Bell Labs

As the reporter heads toward the meeting, you can hear the voice of a speaker somewhere else.








Ralph Bown: Is this on?

What we have for you today represents a fine example of teamwork...

of brilliant individual contributions...

and of the value of basic research in an industrial framework.

The elevator stops and the reporter runs up to a closed door. He pushes the door open to reveal a darkened smoky room with a man up front, impeccably dressed in a well-tailored gray suit and a bow tie (Ralph Bown). The speaker holds up a tiny object.

A photo of the three inventors is behind him.

Photographers take pictures of Bown as he holds up the tiny device.

Bown: This cylindrical object, which I am holding up, is a device that can amplify electrical signals as they are transferred through it. It is composed entirely of cold, solid substances. We call it the transistor.



Sound efx (flashbulbs): pop... pop... pop

Ira in the audience wearing a classic suit, he is indistinguishable from the crowd. Then he surprises the viewers by turning around and addressing the camera.

In the background, a huge blowup of the publicity photo. The camera slowly zooms in.

Publicity photo of the three inventors starts very tight on the transistor and then slowly pulls out.

Ira Standup: It’s June 30, 1948, and Ralph Bown of Bell Labs has announced their latest greatest top-secret invention to the press. It’s designed to replace the venerable vacuum tube. And even though he’s up there extolling the virtues of its newest device, he hasn’t got a clue of the revolution the transistor will trigger. In fact, no one does.


Closeups of transistors on assembly line.


Rocket taking off.

Astronauts on the moon.

Shot of Earth from moon.

VO: No one could have predicted the sweeping changes such a small object would create in business, education and culture.

Astronaut: There you go.

VO: No one foresaw how the transistor would take us to other worlds...

VO: ...and shrink our own.

Ira turns and points at the large mural of the inventors hanging behind the podium.

Standup: Bell Labs credited those three gentlemen... Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, and William Shockley... with the invention of the transistor. You heard Bown call them "a fine example of teamwork." But what Bown didn’t say, but which he knew, was that clashing egos and bitter rivalries had already made it impossible for the three of them to ever work together again.

The Inventors

Photo of three inventors

VO: They were three men of extraordinary talent and very different personalities. Walter Brattain, the oldest, was an experimental physicist who could build and fix just about anything.



Walter Brown

Electrical engineer

Bell Labs & Lucent Technologies

Walter Brown: Walter was sort of a marvelous character, you’d almost say a home-spun character, in the sense that he, his voice was sort of a raspy voice, and he was very plain spoken.

C/u Bardeen

VO: John Bardeen was a theoretical physicist, one of the 20th century’s greatest.


Phil Foy


Bell Laboratories

Phil Foy: John was a very mild mannered man. Never raised his voice. Just remember him as being flat. In complete control of his emotions.

C/u Shockley

VO: Bill Shockley, the team leader, was the youngest. A brilliant theoretician, he saw the transistor’s potential when almost no one else did. His driving ambition would make him a hero… and lead to his downfall


Harry Sello

Physical Chemist

Shockley Semiconductor Lab

Harry Sello: He lived a life of competition, that everything he did breathed and acted competition. It came out of every pore of his being.

Photo of all three inventors

VO: For a brief period after World War II the lives of these three would be interwoven, bringing out the best each had to offer, only to unravel under the crushing weight of unbridled ambition. Their story has all the makings of a classic Greek tragedy.

Bell Labs

Ira standing in front of Bell Labs




Flatow Standup: When our story begins in 1945, Bell Labs had just moved from its cramped headquarters in Manhattan about 20 miles north of here to these state-of-the-art laboratories in the rolling hills of New Jersey.

Bell Labs still


VO: Bell Laboratories was the research arm of the giant telephone company American Telephone and Telegraph, AT&T.

By the mid-1940’s, AT&T held the monopoly on long distance telephone calls.

And it reinvested its wealth wisely, hiring the country’s top scientists and engineers and giving them the very best facilities. AT&T executives understood that basic research gave them a competitive edge.

Ira walking up spiral stairs at Bell Labs

Ira Standup: As you might expect, Bell Labs was an incubator of big dreams and even bigger egos, sometimes. It had already produced one Nobel Prize winner. It was spinning out patents at the rate of two per day. And it all began with a boast made 36 years before.

Calling Long Distance

Photo of Alexander Graham Bell

VO: In 1907, AT&T was in a financial crisis... Alexander Graham Bell’s patents for the telephone had expired and thousands of small independent phone companies were nipping at its heels–stealing customers. To recover from its financial tailspin, AT&T called on its former and now retired president Theodore Vail.

Photo of Theodore Vail

VO: Vail quickly announced that AT&T would offer customers what no other phone company could: coast-to-coast telephone service.

There was only one problem.

archival film

SOT: Can you recall the telephone of a generation ago? New York to Denver was the longest call that could be made. And it was uncertain.

archival photos of telephone linemen working on long distance lines

VO: Uncertain because the phone company needed to find some way to boost the signal the rest of the way across the country. But no satisfactory amplifier existed. So Vail set out to build one.

archival photo of de Forest

VO: He turned to a prolific American inventor from Iowa named Lee de Forest. This electronics pioneer discovered he could make an amplifier by simply putting a metal plate and a bent piece of wire into a light bulb along with its hot filament. It became known as the vacuum tube.

Ira with a vacuum tube

Ira with telephone handset and vacuum tube

shot from several different angles and focal lengths

Standup: In 1906, de Forest found that he could control the flow of electricity from the hot wire to the cold plate by inserting a squiggly little piece of wire between the two. Perhaps you can see it right there in our vacuum tube.

Period animation of monkeys throwing electrons


VO: The little wire was the key to the vacuum tube’s success. This early film explained how it works.

SOT: These aroused monkeys throwing pebbles at a target through a shutter ably portray what goes on in a vacuum tube.

VO: The monkeys are throwing electrons. The shutter in between represents our little wire. It electrically blocks the flow of electrons or lets them through depending on its charge. Like an on/off switch.

SOT: Simple isn’t it?
close up of oscilloscope screen


Ira Standup: That squiggly wire, called the grid, also allowed the tube to be made into an amplifier. Let me show you how that worked. When a weak signal, let’s say a telephone call – Watson, come here, I want you– is fed into the grid of the vacuum tube, it modifies the electricity flowing into the tube. It creates an identical but stronger signal coming out. The tube becomes an amplifier. (loud) "Watson, come here, I want you."

archival film

SOT: Then the vacuum tube went into service and the transcontinental telephone became a reality...

archival footage of Alexander Graham Bell making the first transcontinental telephone call

archival footage from the 1920s

VO: And just as Theodore Vail had promised, on January 23, 1915, the father of the telephone demonstrated AT&T’s new coast-to-coast service.


Lowel Thomas: Alexander Graham Bell repeated the first words ever transmitted by telephone. "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." But this time the inventor’s assistant laughed. "I can’t make it in under a week, Dr. Bell. I’m in San Francisco.

Building a Laboratory


VO: The tube solved the long distance problem and telephone lines spread like spider webs across the country.

VO: By the mid-1920s, the vacuum tube had come into its own.

The Tube Problem


Ira Standup: Vacuum tubes were everywhere. Thousands and thousands of them were powering radios and telephone networks and used in amplifiers all over the world. The problem was though that vacuum tubes were big and bulky, they gave off a lot of heat.


Ira Standup: They used up a lot of power.


Ira Standup: And like their cousins the light bulb, they had a nasty habit of burning out.





Ira Standup: AT&T knew that if it were to meet the demand for increased phone service, it would have to come up with something better than the vacuum tube. And if Bell labs could produce such a product, AT&T stood to make a fortune.

A Better Amplifier

photo of Kelly

VO: In the 1930’s, Bell Lab’s director of research Mervin Kelly understood quite clearly the problems with vacuum tubes.

Ian Ross

President Emeritus

Bell Labs & Lucent Technologies

Ross: It was Kelly, after all, who . . . recognized that if the telephone business was going to rely on relays . . . and on vacuum tubes, then before long its future progress would be limited by the limitations of those two devices.


VO: Kelly thought the answer lay in a strange class of materials called semiconductors, materials such as silicon and germanium, which could both conduct and resist the flow of electricity depending on the conditions. Perhaps they could be coaxed into doing everything vacuum tubes did, only better.

World War II


VO: But World War II put Kelly’s plans for a new semiconductor device on hold, as the nation’s laboratories turned their talents to winning the war.


VO: One of the most important technical developments of the war was radar. Radar helped the Allies see through fog and darkness, track enemy planes and ships, and shoot down buzz bombs destined for London. And radar would play a key role in the invention of the transistor.

Michael Riordan


Crystal Fire


Riordan: To detect radar you needed an element that required semiconductors. It was called a crystal rectifier, and it used this tiny chip of silicon inside to convert the radar signal into something that you could see on the scope.


VO: Radar was made possible through research into silicon and germanium, work that would later be essential to the invention of the transistor.


VO: At the war’s end, the minds and material that once fought Hitler and Hirohito would be mobilized again…this time to make consumer products for the returning GI’s and their growing families.


War’s End

Phil Foy


Bell Laboratories

Phil Foy: Well, we who were in the service were very glad to be home. There was a great expansion going on. ... The Depression was gone, the war was over, and everything was just an up curve. Everything kept going.

Television advertisement


SOT: Music

VO: Everyone wanted a piece of the good life.




VO: For Ma Bell business was so good the company found it hard to keep up. AT&T was swamped with increasing demand for phone service. If the trend continued, quipped one company executive, half the women in the U.S. would have to become switchboard operators.



VO: Mervin Kelly realized that long distance calls could be routed automatically, if a reliable electronic switch could be found.

The Team

Bell Hires Shockley and Brattain





VO: First, he needed to assemble a group of scientists smart enough to make it happen–and fast. Kelly knew that other high-tech laboratories were experimenting with semiconductors, too, and he did not want to risk losing a patent. Kelly tapped one of his top young physicists, Bill Shockley, to lead a team.

archival footage of Shockley with slide rule


VO: Shockley was born in California, the only son of a mining engineer.

He loved rock climbing, practical jokes, and British sports cars. And he was deadly serious about his physics.

Gordon Moore



Moore: Shockley had phenomenal physical intuition. He really had a feeling for the way the physics worked in these devices. I had a colleague that said he thought Shockley could see electrons, his physical intuition was so good.




VO: Shockley was a brilliant theorist , but lousy at building experiments. He knew he’d need someone who worked well with his hands–just like Bell needed Watson. He found Walter Brattain, a seasoned experimental physicist already working at Bell Labs.

Raised on a farm in Washington state, the self-reliant Brattain was the epitome of American ingenuity.

John Pierce


Bell Laboratories

Pierce: Walter was a very good experimental physicist. He could put things together out of sealing wax and paper clips, if you wish.




VO: Shockley then hired John Bardeen, a brilliant theoretical physicist trained at Princeton University. An expert on the movement of electrons within solid materials, he understood the subtleties of semiconductors.


VO: Bardeen was the precocious second son of a medical school dean from Wisconsin. He skipped three grades, and entered college at the age of fifteen.

They called him "Whispering John."

  Riordan: Bardeen was really a quiet, contemplative, very deep kind of person. Whereas, Shockley was quick, and that was initially very complementary.

VO: He would complement Shockley’s own expertise and more importantly, with capable John Bardeen in the laboratory, Shockley would be free to work on his own.

VO: With those key players in place, Shockley filled out his team with an eclectic mix of physicists, chemists and engineers, working to attack the problem from all sides. The kind of team that had worked so well during the war.

photo of Phil Foy

Phil Foy: It was an example of very good teamwork . . . and I have had personal experience in teamwork, having been a bomber pilot. And this was the nearest thing that I saw to that. We were well integrated, well-focused, . . . and had good direction.


VO: And above all, they enjoyed each other’s company.

Walter Brown

Electrical Engineer

Bell Labs & Lucent Technologies

Walter Brown: There was all kinds of partying going on. It was not at all uncommon for a bunch of folks to go to lunch at Snuffy’s down in Scotch Plains, for lunch and have a few beers along with the steak that was available there.

Archival photo of Betty

VO: Betty Sparks was Bill Shockley’s secretary.

Betty Sparks

Bill Shockley’s secretary




Betty Sparks: Bill, of course, liked tricks. He jacked up the rear end of our getaway car, from our wedding party... so that the rear wheels just spun like mad, until everybody out on the front lawn of our home was... laughing, and getting it back down on the ground, where we could buzz off to New York City.

Brown sings the first verse on camera











Home movies over group of old timers singing song

Walter Brown: This song is called "Hells Bells Laboratory." It’s a song that was written in the middle 50s, and sung at various conferences at the time. Written by Ian Mackintosh.

We’ve traveled a long way to bring your this song,

A brand new calypso we’re sure to get wrong,

About the reform school to which we belong,

It’s the Hells Bells Laboratory.

It’s the hells bells and buckets of blood its the hells bells laboratory...

Our walls are all graced by the periodic chart.

Bill Shockley’s picture is sewn over our hearts.

Bardeen and Brattain are our sweethearts

At the Hells Bells Laboratory.

At the Hells Bells and buckets of blood, at the Hells Bells Laboratory.


Act I: Hell's Bells Laboratory

Act II: Mircale Month

Act III: Intrigue and Glory

Act IV: Smaller, Cheaper, Faster

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