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Taking the transistor mainstream with music on the go
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The future began 75 years ago this week with the invention of the transistor. We’ve been looking at the ecosystems of innovation that grew the transistor into the interconnected, digital revolution. The old Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey was powered by genius and corporate monopoly power. But the transistor had to travel to Dallas for it to become music to our ears.
Before there was the first iPod and before the Walkman, there was the transistor radio. It didn’t need big vacuum tubes, so it made carrying a lightweight, more mobile listening device possible.
The first one was the Regency TR-1, and on its launch just before Christmas 1954, it was priced at $50, about $550 dollars in today’s money.
“What was amazing was that people were so transfixed with it, that it sold out at that price. They couldn’t make enough of them at first,” said Don Pies, son of the co-founder of the Regency company of Indianapolis.
The design looked good enough to eat: multiple colors, big brassy dial. They didn’t sound great, but you could take them to the game or the beach. Regency made these at the invitation of a Dallas firm which had just started manufacturing the four transistors inside, “because that would show that yes, the transistor is a practical device,” according to Pies.
And how did Texas Instruments in Dallas get into transistors patented by Bell Labs in New Jersey four years earlier? They bought a cheap license from AT&T at just $300,000 in today’s money. And with something else: a guy named Gordon Teal who’d been working on a new kind of transistor, the first ones with silicon.
“Bell didn’t pursue that very much because they didn’t need the real benefit of silicon, which was the ability to operate over much wider temperature ranges,” said David Laws, a curator at the Computer History Museum in California. “The first commercial silicon transistor was a great success for TI because now military equipment could begin to use transistors.”
The company had roots in electronics for oil exploration. But a new Texas Instruments boss, Pat Haggerty, saw this work as too cyclical, said Max Post, a longtime TI employee.
“There was so much volatility in both the petroleum market — up and down on exploration — and also military contracts were not very stable in those days,” Post said. “He persuaded the company — ‘Let’s get into manufacturing.'”
Haggerty came to Dallas in 1945 after buying technology for the Pentagon during the war, where he’d seen that vacuum tubes had to go. He would build a company with the culture to become a mini Bell Labs.
“They gave you the chance for failure. They’d let you explore ideas. And there was no penalty for failure in those days,” Post said.
This culture attracted an engineer in 1958 named Jack Kilby, who had a passion for jamming circuits into smaller spaces for important stuff like hearing aids. A rival firm nearly hired him but stipulated he could only do the work with part of his time. Instead, TI’s boss said Kilby could focus on what he wanted.
“He said you may work on that full time and see what comes out of it,” Post explained.
At TI, Kilby then co-invented the integrated circuit, a way to put transistors and other components on chip without a rat’s nest of wires. He won the Nobel Prize. The pocket calculator is also partly his invention. And that first pocket radio his company promoted as a transistor marketing tool? The Regency TR-1? There were 150,000 sold. Not bad.
But the platinum megahit goes to another outfit that bought a transistor license from Bell Labs: Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo. Which starts a more familiar brand: Sony.
“That was the great success of Sony, was to start building transistor radios at very low cost and in high volume,” Laws said. “And it eventually swept the market, of course.”
It’s the start of the shift of transistor production overseas, which eventually leads to a big U.S.-Japan trade conflict in the 1980s. Later, most semiconductor fabrication migrates across Asia, something Congress and the Biden administration are trying to address now with the $280 billion CHIPS act. But before all that, the microprocessor (the little brains on a chip with billions and billions of transistors) has to be invented. This happens not at Bell Labs in New Jersey or at Texas Instruments in Dallas, but in apricot orchards out West.
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