Friday, April 17, 2015

Article in the New York Times wrongly credits Bell Labs scientists as inventing the semiconductor!

Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard, in a piece in the New York Times titled

Why a Harvard Professor Has Mixed Feelings When Students Take Jobs in Finance

wrote the following:

People in some professions provide a surplus of social returns. Inventors are a good example. Take the modern semiconductor. It made possible countless other inventions — nearly every piece of computing we interact with today.
But the winners of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics, John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain and William B. Shockley, who have been widely credited with inventing the semiconductor, did not receive even a fraction of the wealth that their invention would help create. Patents rarely cover an invention’s numerous downstream benefits because knowledge is a public good and builds on itself. Just as the semiconductor spawned innovation, Bardeen, Shockley and Brattain themselves relied on countless other insights and inventions.


As a first point, Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley did not invent the semiconductor.  They invented what came to be termed the transistor.  In fact, there were separate inventions:  Bardeen and Brattain to the point contact transistor and Shockley to the junction transistor.  

As a second point, the New York Times, at the time of the invention, completely underplayed the significance of the invention, tucking the disclosure in a short piece on news of the radio.

As a third point, because of the regulated nature of AT&T/Bell Labs at the time of the invention, licensing of the relevant patents was done under quite favorable terms for licensees.  Curiously, a company which came to known as Sony was one of the major beneficiaries, more so than American companies.  

As a fourth point, although a Stanford professor suggested that the inventors did not foresee the broad significance of the invention ( only for hearing aids !)., Shockley's move to what became known as Silicon Valley  undercuts this misimpression.

Link to  NYTimes/TheUpshor post:

For more detail on the transistor story:


In 1947, scientists at Bell Laboratories internally disclosed a remarkable new invention that would later become known as the “transistor.” Following the initial disclosure, Bell Labs methodically planned and facilitated the patenting, publication, and licensing of this new technology. The manner in which Bell Labs handled the disclosure and licensing of this pioneering invention provides a template that present-day inventors would be well-advised to emulate.


Thus, as to the New York Times and the transistor, the Times did not understand the significance of the transistor invention in 1948,  and 67 (sixty-seven) years later it becomes clear the Times did not even know what the invention was!


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