Thursday, January 06, 2005

On the history of the transistor

At the IBM site (, one can find an interesting statement that Bell Labs did not get patents on the transistor.

Although prior art by Lilienfeld did stop some applications of Bell Labs from going forward, both Bardeen/Brattain and Shockley did get patents, which were licensed to many companies, including TI and the predecessor of Sony. At all relevant times, Bell Labs, Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley knew, understood, and foresaw applications for the transistor beyond a use in hearing aids.

The relevant text at states:

-->Independent contemporaneous (and not so contemporaneous) discovery would remain a recurring theme in electronics.

So it was with the invention of the vacuum tube -- invented by Fleming, who was investigating the Effect named for and discovered by Edison; it was refined four years later by de Forest (but is now rumored to have been invented 20 years prior by Tesla). So it was with the transistor: Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen were awarded the Nobel Prize for turning de Forest's triode into a solid state device -- but they were not awarded a patent, because of 20-year-prior art by Lilienfeld. So it was with the integrated circuit (or IC) for which Jack Kilby was awarded a Nobel Prize, but which was contemporaneously developed by Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor (who got the patent). And so it was, indeed, with the microprocessor. <--

**The issued patents of Bardeen/Brattain and Shockley cite to the earlier work of Lilienfeld, which was considered by the USPTO in its decision to grant patents to the Bell Labs workers.

**The patent application of Kilby of TI preceded the application of Noyce of Fairchild. Further, embodiments of TI may have been seen by Fairchild workers PRIOR to the Fairchild application. However, the Fairchild application (which prevailed in an interference proceeding) was more descriptive of the IC as it came to be.

**Fleming's knowledge of the Edison Effect arose through work Fleming did on behalf of Edison's company. Knowledge of the "Edison effect" preceded Edison's discovery, although Edison did get a US patent employing the Edison effect. Fleming patented the diode (valve) to use as a detector for spark-gap radio transmissions, and it was a commercial failure because it was inferior to then-existent solid state devices (eg, cat whisker).


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