The first transistor.

Act I:
Hell's Bells Laboratory

Act II:
Miracle Month

Act III:
Intrigue and Glory

Act IV:
Smaller, Cheaper, Faster




Miracle Month

Shockley’s failed attempt

Shockley in laboratory



-- Music --

VO: In the spring of 1945, even before the team was complete, Bill Shockley was convinced he knew how to make a semiconductor amplifier. For almost a decade, he had dreamed of being the first to invent one. He had his associates assemble a crude device based on his design and began testing it.

Though Bill Shockley was sure it would work, many others thought it was impossible.

Nick Holonyak

Electrical Engineer

University of Illinois

Nick Holonyak: At the time to do this is crazy. It’s unimaginable because it’s so radically different. There’s nothing like this. No one has had anything ever like this. And it’s got strange ideas, and strange behavior and strange data.





VO: His idea was to attach a battery to a piece of semiconductor and place a metal plate just above it. Now, normally electricity won’t flow through the semiconductor. But if an electric charge is applied to the plate, Shockley reasoned, the resulting electric field should draw electrons out of the atoms, creating a path for the electricity. He called this the field effect.

the oscilloscope stays flat


Shockley writing in notebook:

"No observable change in current resulted."

VO: His experimental device was a small cylinder coated on the outside with a thin film of silicon. He positioned a small metal plate just above it.

VO: The theory looked great on paper, but it didn’t work. No matter what he did, he could not increase the current flowing through the cylinder. Bill Shockley was stumped.

The Barrier





Standup: Discouraged, Shockley asked his new employee, John Bardeen to double-check his mathematics. Like Shockley, Bardeen was schooled in the new world of quantum mechanics…where the behavior of subatomic particles as small as electrons could be predicted.






Standup: Well, Bardeen went over the figures. He couldn’t find anything wrong. So why didn’t the field effect device work? That’s what Shockley wanted to find out, so he assigned Bardeen and his new close personal friend, Walter Brattain, to come up with the answer. Shockley then envisioned himself returning to the laboratory to complete the invention of the transistor.

Michael Riordan


Crystal Fire

Riordan: I think he, ah, . . . was simply giving them a problem that needed to be solved, and once it solved -- once it was solved, ah, then, ah, Shockley could go back to the business at hand, which was to actually make a, a solid-state amplifier.

Joel Shurkin


Broken Genius

Shurkin: Generally, Shockley had backed off from it and. . . had enough brains to leave them alone. Whether he did it deliberately or whether this was just the function or his personality, I’m not sure. But essentially the two of them worked alone.


VO: Bardeen thought he understood why Shockley’s device didn’t work

Ian Ross

President Emeritus

Bell Labs & Lucent Technologies

Ross: Simply put, he said that there were things happening on the surface of the semiconductor that was preventing this field from penetrating into the body of the material.




VO: Bardeen believed that electrons were trapped on the surface of the silicon, creating a shield, so the electric field could not reach the electrons on the inside.

VO: The pair set out to understand the mysterious details of this surface barrier.


VO: Walter Brattain spent most of his time in the lab building and conducting experiments. John Bardeen would suggest new experiments and interpret the results.


Holonyak: It’s John who does the heavy duty thinking, and Walter, who was a very good experimentalist, with John around was a great experimentalist. And Walter knew that.


VO: Brattain and Bardeen worked very closely, but would often call in Shockley and other members of the team for advice.


Ross: They were embedded in the remarkably productive environment of Bell Labs at Murray Hill in those days. They had access to other people within Shockley’s group. They had access to other people outside, in metallurgy and chemistry, and they were perfectly free, without any bureaucracy to call on help wherever they needed it.


VO: Walter Brattain’s diary reflects how pleased he was with the team.

The group together. Shockley at the blackboard. Conference room sequence, trio sitting around smoking, talking

Brattain (actor voice over): I cannot overemphasize the rapport of this group. We would meet together to discuss important steps almost on the spur of the moment of an afternoon. We would discuss things freely.


VO: Brattain and Bardeen began tinkering with thin slices of silicon searching for a deeper understanding of the surface barrier.


Ross: And they started making electrical measurements on the surface of germanium and silicon, and varying the surface properties to see if they could confirm his theory.


VO: They dipped the silicon into liquid nitrogen, figuring this frigid bath might somehow neutralize the shield and allow the electric field to penetrate deeper where it could stimulate the flow of electrons. It worked, but only very slightly. Enough however, to convince Bardeen his theory was correct.

back to lab sequence. The lab is hot. It’s the summer time. Sweat is dripping.

VO: Unfortunately, this early victory was just a tease. Brattain and Bardeen could make no more headway into unlocking the secret of the surface barrier. Winter turned to spring, and spring to summer, and summer to fall and still no progress.


VO: With nothing to show for their efforts, tensions mounted... especially between the vocal Brattain and his ambitious boss. Phil Foy remembers one incident in particular.

The Miracle Month



VO: The experiment worked, much to the surprise of everyone... even when he placed just a drop of water on the top of the semiconductor. Apparently, charged particles in the water were migrating down to the silicon and neutralizing the surface barrier.



VO: Brattain realized they were onto something big.


Brattain (actor voice over): "I’d taken part in the most important experiment that I’d ever do in my life."

Ira Standup in Lab



Standup: Thus began what Bell Labs would eventually call its "Miracle Month." Brattain and Bardeen were hot on the trail. It seemed like almost every day they were making discoveries that brought them closer to overcoming the surface barrier







VO: The device worked even better when they switched from silicon to germanium. But there was still one problem, one that would be especially troublesome for a phone company. It was sluggish, not responsive enough to amplify the complex tones of the human voice.

VO: Perhaps the liquid was slowing down the response. Why not just get rid of it?

Ira Standup

Standup: The history of invention is certainly full of serendipitous events, "happy accidents." And a key discovery made at Bell Labs in December of 1947 is certainly one of them. Because in his efforts to do away with the liquid, Walter Brattain, almost by accident, stumbled upon the transistor.


VO: Brattain had an idea for a new device. Instead of the metal plate, he would substitute a spot of gold and keep it separated from the germanium by a thin oxide film, sort of a rust that sometimes forms on germanium.

He hooked it up... and nothing happened. No amplification at all. It was as if they had gone back to square one.


VO: But they didn’t give up.

Frederick Seitz

President Emeritus

Rockefeller University

Seitz: John Bardeen was one of the great scientists of our century. He had unique characteristics of seizing on a problem and never letting go until he understood it down to the depths and solved it.


VO: They kept at it. Trying many different combinations of setups and voltages. And shortly before Christmas of 1947 their perseverance paid off. Phil Foy was in the lab that day.





The oscilloscope needle jumps up

Phil Foy: Brattain was on the opposite side of the room. He had a bench, and he had his . . . small microscope, and he was actually looking at surface effects, and he noticed that he had current gain on that scope. And he let out a sentence -- it wasn’t a loud sentence -- "This thing’s got gain!"


VO: It turns out that Brattain had accidentally washed away the thin oxide film. So the gold spot was in direct contact with the semiconductor. Instead of a field pulling electrons to the surface, as Shockley had envisioned, Bardeen realized they were injecting positive charges directly into the germanium.


-- Music --

Lillian Hoddeson


Crystal Fire

Hoddeson: And so they actually built the first transistor on an entirely different principle than they had anticipated. It wasn’t a field effect amplifier at all.

Phil Foy


Bell Laboratories

Phil Foy: When Brattain actually saw the first transistor effect, it was his deep training to know he had something. He could have missed that! But that was the flash of genius. He knew he had something.

Recreation: Laboratory Dec. 16, 1947

The scene switches to extreme close-ups of Brattain’s hands as he makes the final assembly of the wedge, pushes it down onto the germanium and then a close-up on the oscilloscope as gain is achieved.

Graphic: He takes a wedge shaped piece of plastic and wraps a thin gold ribbon around the edge. Then with a razor blade, he cuts the ribbon, creating an input and an output with an extremely small gap in-between.


VO: It was time to turn the experiment into an invention. On December 16, 1947, without discussing their plans with Shockley, the pair began to build a device. Immediately, Brattain encountered a major design problem.

The wires touching the germanium had to be extremely close together and they were very difficult to manipulate.

Quickly, Brattain cobbled together an ingenious solution. He wrapped a strip of thin gold foil around a small plastic triangle. Slicing the foil in two at the tip, he created a razor thin gap.

He applied the power... and the device worked. Walter Brattain had just built the first transistor.

Brattain hooks the crude device to his batteries. The volt meter spikes up.

Brattain (actor voice over): "It was marvelous! It would sometimes stop working, but I could always wiggle it and make it work again."

Ira Standup- The Replica


Ira Standup: And here you have it. The device that Brattain and Bardeen were so excited about. It’s an exact replica, an actual working replica of their original transistor. Here is a slab of semiconductor material germanium, the same kind of germanium they used in their transistor, it’s sitting on a copper base. Power is applied to the bottom of the slab through this copper. A weak signal enters one side, is amplified in the semiconductor and comes out the output stronger.

outside of Shockley’s house

VO: Bill Shockley was working at home that day. Walter Brattain and John Bardeen decided to call him with the good news. But his response was not what they had expected.

Joel Shurkin


Broken Genius


Joel Shurkin: Shockley had two emotions. One, he was very pleased because he knew how important it was, and I think he genuinely did like these two people. He was also stunned and angry and disappointed because realized at that moment that they had done it and he had not.


VO: That phone call from Brattain and Bardeen changed Bill Shockley’s life–forever. His friends said he was never the same.


Seitz: Then there was a remarkable change in character and outlook. He became more in-grown and tense and his friends saw less and less of him.


VO: His subordinates had just invented the device that Shockley had been dreaming about for years. And they might get all the credit. He would have to do something to get back in the game–and do it fast.


Act I: Hell's Bells Laboratory

Act II: Mircale Month

Act III: Intrigue and Glory

Act IV: Smaller, Cheaper, Faster

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