One of the world’s first transistors found its way to Germany around seventy years ago, marking the start of the German semiconductor industry. Back then, through some roundabout ways, it found its way to Munich, where it has been exhibited in the Deutsches Museum – the world’s largest museum of science and technology – since the start of the year.
The transistor is now just over seventy years old. And these days, almost all areas of our lives are determined by what physicists and electrical engineers have conjured from this inconspicuous “three-legged” component. Austrian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld is credited with the first patents for a transistor back in 1925. However, at that time its implementation was not possible, one of the reasons being that there was no pure semiconductor material available. It took another twenty years until, on December 23, 1947, scientists at Bell Laboratories presented the first functioning bipolar transistor during an internal demonstration.
Transistor no. 9 in a roundabout way
Of these first transistors, “number 9” reached Germany in 1952, where it had a major effect on the development of the German semiconductor industry. Shortly after this, transistor no. 9 disappeared into a red matchbox, where it remained until 2006.
The matchbox also contained a handwritten note from H. W. Fock, a Siemens employee in Munich, dated November 5, 1952. “As agreed, we are sending you the Bell transistor 1768, no. 9.” However, it did not turn up again until 2006. A Siemens employee who had been with the company for many years but who had retired by that time had been looking after it at home. He presented the transistor to his wide-eyed colleagues and handed it over to Infineon’s Historical Archive.
Transistor no. 9 and the “Cold War”
By that time, transistor no. 9 had already had an adventurous journey: Bell Labs invited 160 scientists to an international transistor symposium in May 1952, where it presented its invention. The audience included four employees from Siemens & Halske AG who had paid the enormous fee of $25,000 to attend. Strict secrecy was enforced, since the future technology was not to get into the hands of the Eastern bloc. However, Bell Labs wanted to acquire companies from the west as licensees.
This unusual “openness” was likely due to the U.S. government’s ant-trust policy. In 1949, Bell Labs was commissioned by the government to carry out research into transistor technology. As part of these contracts, Bell Labs was obligated to pass on the results of its research to licensees for a reasonable price. The idea behind this was that technologies developed using government funding should also be available to other companies.
The latest research results from Bell Labs and the associated transistor samples formed the basis for a semiconductor plant in Munich at the end of 1952. The first point-contact transistors manufactured from 1953, TS13 and TS33, were very similar to those from Bell Labs.
New no. 1 in the Deutsches Museum
“Number 9” is now the star of the current microelectronics exhibition in the Deutsches Museum, which will be followed in 2020 with an extensive permanent electronics exhibition. Visitors to the exhibition can also see the transistron, the European equivalent of the US invention. German physicist Herbert Franz Mataré, together with Heinrich Welker, developed this first European transistor in a laboratory in Paris, France – independently of but almost at the same time as the Americans. But in spite of better noise values, a longer service life, and better stability, the European transistron was never developed commercially. By the way, important theoretical preparatory work for transistors was carried out in Austria and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, scientists were looking for an alternative to electron tubes (triodes).