"We told [the military] that this was a demonstration that was going to be released to the press next week.  They had to take action if they wanted to stop it."  -- Walter Brattain, Interview with Charles Weiner, 1974

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Telling the Military

June 23, 1949

They had no way of knowing all that the transistor could do, but the administrators at Bell Labs still knew they were on to something big.  They were about to hold a huge press conference to announce what they'd invented -- but before telling the public they  had to check with the military.  At the very least, the transistor could revolutionize communications and radio signals, something that would give the US Army an advantage if the invention was kept a secret from other countries.  Bell's president, Mervin Kelly, hoped the army wouldn't want to classify this research, but he knew it just might happen.

On June 23, Ralph Bown gave a presentation to a group of military officers.  He showed the way the tiny bit of crystal and wire could amplify an electrical signal much more efficiently than a bulky vacuum tube could.   He also told them this was the same demonstration he was preparing to give to the press the next week. What he didn't do was ask permission.  Bown and Kelly didn't want to make it easy for the military to classify the transistor.  If  they wanted to keep it a secret, the army would have to bring up the subject itself. 

The armed services went home to their various offices and discussed whether to classify Bell's work.  There were certainly those who thought that, at the very least, it should be kept secret until it was better understood just what the transistor could do.  But in the end, nobody said a word.  Bell Labs went on to its big press conference without a hitch.  

-- Crystal Fire by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson  

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