I chose to pursue an Electrical Engineering degree because I was good in math and wanted to know what made my dad’s amplifier system work. He had a big music system, which I used all the time — back in the days when you needed a floor-to-ceiling rack of equipment with massive speakers to light the house with music.
Oddly enough by the time I took the course in circuit theory, 2nd year of Engineering school, I had trouble with transistor theory. I was never quite able to figure out the right current coming out of the paths; or not right enough of the time to get more than a B in the class. If I had watched the video below back then I think I would have had an easier time of it — the history of the transistor, made in 1999 by PBS, at the advent of the internet!
The transistor changed the world — my dad would always say. When he’d say it, I had a curiosity of the guy who actually invented it, how he did it, and what it must have been like. The answers are in this video — a fascinating story with many sub-stories and sub plots.
Hell’s Bell’s Laboratory
The transistor was invented by a team at Bell Labs in New Jersey — the “Hell’s Bell’s Laboratory” as they called it (they invented a song, played in this documentary). This video should be watched from the beginning, where tubes and the deficiencies of tubes are covered — but the action heats up here — the attempt to use a field effect to pull electrons and run a current on a semiconductor like Germanium or Silicon.
William Shockley gets credit for inventing the transistor, but interestingly, it is his two comrades (and subordinate scientists) John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain who actually invented the transistor on a completely different theory than the field effect Shockley had them pursuing. They injected the semiconductor with electrons — creating the point-contact transistor. This documentary theorizes that Shockley had sent them off to do busy work, while he concentrated on the main problem at hand. Jealous that they had stolen the thunder, accidentally, on a theory completely different than the one he was after — Shockley dove in and did them one better, inventing a month later the 3-layer transistor that became the norm. This created a massive rift between Shockley and Bardeen & Brattain — which then also led to hard feelings over patent rights and even publicity pictures they took.
The Team Ate Lunch at Snuffy’s in Scotch Plains, NJ
What is also fascinating about this story is that before the hard feelings and competition between Shockley and Bardeen & Brattain, the Bell Labs team used to party and “go to Snuffy’s for lunch and have a few beers along with the steak available there.”
Snuffy’s Restaurant to Be Replaced by Lidl’s Grocery?
Snuffy’s is still there at 250 Park Ave on Route 22 in New Jersey, with a restaurant that serves dinner, and a venue (called Pantagis) for Weddings and other events. However, recent news (September, 2019) says the Scotch Plains town board has approved the restaurant being torn down and replaced by a Lidl’s grocery store and Park & Ride.
Days after that news surfaced above, the owners of Snuffy’s denied it!
If you are interested in visiting Snuffy’s for a steak and beer and to absorb the atmosphere of the historic place before it ‘might’ be torn down — beware — the reviews of the food and service on Yelp are horrendous.
More Significant Stories Surface
Every part of this story seems to get more interesting as you go down its rabbit hole. After feuding with Bardeen & Brattain, then feuding with everyone else at Bell labs, Shockley moved to California where he was born and his mother still lived, and created a company — Shockley’s Semiconductors — hiring brilliant people (something he is credited as being very good at), who soon left his company to start companies of their own — Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Shockley ended up creating Silicon Valley.
The documentary is chock full of interesting smaller stories — for example, when the 3 scientists (Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain) sit down together for wine to let bygones be bygones the night after being presented with the Nobel Prize.