Is it possible to love a transistor? Certainly what Jack Ward feels for the Raytheon CK722, the first transistor sold to the general public, goes beyond casual affection. He's collected thousands of early transistor specimens, including dozens of CK722s. His stately yellow Victorian home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brookline, Mass., has a basement crammed with enough code oscillators, Geiger counters, radios, hand-wrought circuit boards, transistorized hearing aids, subminiature vacuum tubes, diodes, resistors, and capacitors to make any collector of vintage electronic gear drool. He's written one book about the CK722 and has started another about early transistor history at RCA. When he's not working as associate director of quality for the Bedford, Mass., facility of gene-chip maker Affymetrix Inc., he's busy maintaining his virtual Transistor Museum on the Web and is widely acknowledged by fellow collectors as a techno-anthropologist par excellence .
"My wife's very supportive, and my younger two children think it's fairly amusing, and probably not a bad way to have a mid-life crisis," says Ward of his family's reaction to his passionate pursuit of transistor history. Far from thinking that his dad's a square, Ward's oldest son, Nick, who is pursuing a B.A. in physics, is learning a lot from his old man. "Nick can't believe how fast technology changes and that the people I talk to have changed the world," adds Ward, who as curator of the online museum has shifted his focus from collecting early transistors to collecting oral histories from the engineers who sparked the Semiconductor Era.
For Ward and the CK722, it was love at first sight. The year was 1959: Fidel Castro had just taken Cuba, John F. Kennedy was campaigning for U.S. president, Buddy Holly was flying around on what would be his last tour, and Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor had both filed patent applications for something called an integrated circuit. Recalling himself as a boy of 10 marching into his local radio distributor and plunking down his allowance for his first transistor, Ward [ see photo] taps into the same wonder that gripped him when he laid eyes on the CK722, which Raytheon Co. (Lexington, Mass.) made available to hobbyists through RadioShack stores starting in March 1953.
"They were probably only a couple bucks at the time, but just the excitement of actually owning one of these was intense. The package is quite spectacular, you know, the actual shape of the device and the color," he says. "The blue ones, for instance, the iridescent blue color is just gorgeous."
With his new transistor, Ward built a radio, just a simple tuned circuit with a germanium diode to detect a signal and a CK722 as an audio amplifier. "I turned it on in my room at night after lights out, and listened to rock and roll or a baseball game," he says wistfully. "For sheer excitement, I can't think of a parallel with another thing in technology. I'm tempted to say the PC, but that doesn't quite capture it. You see, it's different than that."
Love potion No. 722
Ward wasn't the only boy smitten. Tens of thousands of CK722s were sold between 1953 and the mid-1960s. The irresistible transistor cast a spell over even die-hard vacuum tube enthusiasts like Terry Hosking. By the ripe old age of 12, Hosking, now a senior application and design engineer with SB Electronics Inc. (Barre, Vt.), had concluded that vacuum tubes were the only way to go.
"I told some of my relatives that I didn't think that transistors were going to amount to much," Hosking told me. "A few weeks later, I got a care package from them with a blue CK722 and a Sylvania 2N35 transistor and a couple books that showed how to hook them up. I was amazed to find that the transistor radio I built would pick up the local stations without an external antenna and ground like I had to use with the tube radio."
Transistors weren't just sensitive devices, they were the mysterious oracles of a new age—"Just a little solid block of black plastic with three thin wires sticking out," says Tom Lee, associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. Lee started fooling around with transistors when he was only five. At that time, in the mid-1960s, RadioShack sold "blister packs" of five transistors for a dollar. "They were the only transistors a kid could easily obtain with saved-up pocket change," he says. "The CK722 is the first recollection I have of that transistor type, indeed, of any transistor type at all. The things seemed magical."
And messy in a way tinkerers love. Junior engineers constructing projects out of transistors and circuit boards had to hone basic shop skills: measuring, cutting, drilling, and assembly. "Of course, the most important skill to master was soldering," says Bob McGarrah, now staff system planning engineer at Central Illinois Light Co. (Peoria, Ill.).
What madeleines were to Proust, solder is to McGarrah. "The unique smell of the hot flux still brings back happy memories," he says, one of which is a of small audio amplifier that he discovered had an impedance high enough not to draw a dial tone when connected to a telephone line. A huge fan of the TV spy drama "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," young McGarrah used the amplifier to practice his surveillance skills by listening in on family members' phone calls.
Connecting on the Internet
Like old high school chums who reunite on Classmates.com and realize that they shared a crush on the same girl way back when, Hosking, Lee, Ward, McGarrah, and dozens of others linked up on the online auction site eBay in the late 1990s and began swapping stories along with vintage transistors.
"Old transistor collectors tend to be a small, close-knit bunch," says McGarrah, who runs his own transistor history Web site. "The power of the Internet to bring together such a narrowly focused group of hobbyists is amazing."
Ward concurs: "Without the Internet, none of this interaction would really be possible." Inspired by the online communities he saw sprouting up around vacuum tubes, Ward decided to use the Internet to research the history of early transistor radios. He soon became more interested in radio components than the radios themselves, "in how these little devices were developed, and what a profound impact they had on society."
In 1999, Ward scratched an itch to write and took as his subject his first transistor. He began working on The Story of the CK722, and put up the http://www.ck722.com Web site. Here he posted the fruits of his research—pictures of the CK722 and other early Raytheon transistors, charting the 722 through its three case colors, silver, black, and that iridescent blue [see " Transistor Family Tree,"]. He also posted pictures of old ads, circuit schematics, packages, and devices people made with the CK722 that they sent him for his growing collection.
Deep into his yearlong project, Ward attended the Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) monthly hamfest, a flea market for the "geek to the max," as he puts it. He made known to fellow collectors his eagerness to find out more about the origins of his favorite transistor. "Someone mentioned that they thought Raytheon had a historian," Ward remembers. "So I called up Raytheon, and sure enough, there was one. A gentleman named Norman Krim."