Poky Plastic Perks Up

A polymer semiconductor approaches silicon speed

3 min read

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How the First Transistor Worked

Even its inventors didn’t fully understand the point-contact transistor

12 min read
A phot of an outstretched hand with several transistors in the palm of it.

A 1955 AT&T publicity photo shows [in palm, from left] a phototransistor, a junction transistor, and a point-contact transistor.

AT&T ARCHIVES AND HISTORY CENTER
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The vacuum-tube triode wasn’t quite 20 years old when physicists began trying to create its successor, and the stakes were huge. Not only had the triode made long-distance telephony and movie sound possible, it was driving the entire enterprise of commercial radio, an industry worth more than a billion dollars in 1929. But vacuum tubes were power-hungry and fragile. If a more rugged, reliable, and efficient alternative to the triode could be found, the rewards would be immense.

The goal was a three-terminal device made out of semiconductors that would accept a low-current signal into an input terminal and use it to control the flow of a larger current flowing between two other terminals, thereby amplifying the original signal. The underlying principle of such a device would be something called the field effect—the ability of electric fields to modulate the electrical conductivity of semiconductor materials. The field effect was already well known in those days, thanks to diodes and related research on semiconductors.

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