back to article Inventor of first practical transistor dead at 91

Morgan Sparks, inventor of the first "practical" transistor and one of the reasons your cell phone doesn't use vacuum tubes, died this week at the age of 91. He received clearance to that great national laboratory in the sky this Sunday at his daughter's home in California. Sparks worked for 30 years at Bell Laboratories, …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Charles Manning

    Solid state a lot older than that

    Hats off the the transistor bods, but they were not the first to make solid state amplifiers.

    Negative resistance amplifiers (basically tunnel diodes) were first discovered in the 1920s. Read for a kick off.

    The equivalent valve technology (toooobs) were discovered around 1906.

    Of course you would not want to use tunnel diodes in logic circuits because of their stability, but then you would not want to use a regular transistor either. All modern stuff uses FETs which came about a bit later.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    They say that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

    It's the 1% that gets the accolades, because it is far more valuable.

  3. ED Stroudley

    Post war Scientific and social revolution

    When Sparks was developing his exotic electronic sandwiches over 20 states in the US forbade mixed (inter racial) marriages by law with jail terms for transgressors.

    A position unchanged until 1967 when the State of Virginia was overuled by the Supreme Court in 1967 (Loving Virginia) in the case of Mrs Loving who also died lied last week.

    By then the little village of Langley ,VA. had enthusiastically supported and harnessed the power and utility of Spark's pioneering design and methods of doping germanium.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bell Labs may remember Mr. Heil

    They took the transistor from Mr. Heil and mass produced it as he did not have the money when he invented it on 1934.

    My teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology back in the 70's worked for Bell labs for 15 years and knew of the way it went down and admitted that they wouldn't have gotten credit for it if Mr. Heil had the money to produce it himself.

  5. Steve Jones

    @ Charles Manning


    It's an obit, not a history lesson. RIP

  6. Kenny Millar

    Not invention, discovery

    The transistor, the bi-polar junction etc were not 'inventions' they were discoveries.

  7. Charley

    So, he would have been

    one of the Bright Sparks then?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    @ Kenny

    It's an invention. He didn't move a stack of papers and find a transistor hiding underneath.

    The principles behind transistors were of course discoveries, but the design and construction of anything is an invention.

    Paris because I'm sure she's discovered a lot of things over the years.

  9. Shonko Kid

    @Kenny Millar

    The physics behind them were discoveries, but turning that physical effect into a practical and useful device is invention.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >Not invention, discovery

    Yes, because they discovered transistorite, the naturally occurring mineral that contains bi-polar junctions.

    The mines in the US rapidly ran dry in the 80's then Taiwan and Japan, now the only known source is China where they are carved from the bedrock by pygmies to keep the size down.

    Some people think this stuff is manufactured!

  11. Tom

    @ Charly

    Poor effort mate as this chap was the inspiration for that phrase in the first place!

  12. G R Goslin

    The 1st transistor? Not so.

    A U.S. patent 1,745,175, taken out Jan 28 1930, and filed in 1926, for "Method and Apparatus for Controlling Electric Currents", clearly and unequivocably describes the NPN transistor. The semiconductor, in this case being Copper Sulphide. doped, it is thought with Aluminium. There has been speculation that the later team knew of this earlier work, but went on regardless to claim the invention of the transistor. Quite rightly, I suppose, since they invented the name. The preamble to the patent clearly describes its use in communications, its use as a relay or amplifier.

  13. Steve

    (I imagine someone could do better)

    Looks like he ran out of gain!

    He saturated!

    He recombinated in the ultimate junction!

    All your base (and emitter and collector) are belong to him!

    I have better stop in case someone suspects me of being bipolar!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @G R Goslin

    I guess English isn't your first language...

    From the article: 'inventor of the first >>>"practical"<<< transistor'

    I've added some emphasis.

  15. Doug Lynn

    Germanium transistors

    Hi, thought germaninum transistors were the first ones? Then Silicon transistors. Have may have been discoveries early but not developed in to a product. I remember my first two transistor radio I got in 1950's. It was all the rage to have one.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Tanya Cumpston

    The 1% may be more valuable, but it almost never gets the accolades. Mathematical theorems, scientific discoveries, engineering breakthroughs are almost never named for or attributed to the people who had the inspiration. Rather it is the people who brought the inspiration to a wider audience by proving the theorem in a way accessible to most mathematicians, or who made the first easily deployed version of something, or who were the most effective self-promoters or worked for the firm with the most effective and motivated PR department that get the accolades. This is both historically grounded and personally experienced.

    Those who make something practical are not necessarily the same as those who bring it to wider attention either. The accomplishments of Sparks are significant and not nearly as recognized as they should be.

  17. G R Goslin

    @JonB@G R Goslin

    "I guess English isn't your first language..."

    Oh, I dunno, I always thought I could spikka da lingo as well as any other native of Nottingham.

    The first "transistor" was hardly what you'd call <<<practical>>>, and the first generation of Germanium based devices had serious <<<practical>>> difficulties. The US Patent Office in the 1920's had a very good reputation of investigating applications for patents, far better than the travesty it is today, and was rather unlikely to have granted a patent for something demonstrably could not fulfill what was claimed. The story is that the world (and big business) simply was not ready for the transistor.

  18. Pyros


    Just to note, it's been recent that IBM's been playing around with a new type of transistor for high-bandwidth WiFi networks. (Current ones run on 2.4 gHz, but this one may handle transmissions at 60gHz--it's just the volume that's the question. Enter the new transistors.)

    Just lettin' you know--I think Sparky's happy to know that someone's *really* pushing his work now.

  19. Anonymous Coward

    Transistors are from Earth???!?

    Cummon.. everybody with less than half a brain knows that this stuff was scavenged from crashed UFOs. They crashed because silly aliens kept pulling the transistors out to put them in gift boxes.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    Well not quite

    Without looking it all up: the first transistors to be conceived were field-effect trannies, but the technology to produce a practical device was not available. The initial Bardeen bipolars were point-contact, and these were bloody useless (I have one or two p-c somewhere that I did not blow up by using them. All you had to do was frown, and they'd pop).

    What this geezer did was to produce a *practical* device that could be manufactured in bulk - the junction trannie. They were still bloody useless - LF devices only. But they could be used in trannie sets :)

    When the mesa and planar processes were developed later, you could get HF out of them. But once the junction FET could be made it started to take over - until IGFETs wiped it out.

    And yes, there were plenty of semiconductor devices around before that, like the copper-oxide rectifiers and simple CuO amps, but they had a frequency response of up to a few Hz.

    The germanium/geranium/silicon issue was due to the problems with the manufacture, until diffusion techniques were fully developed germanium was easier to work with and dope. Ge devices were not bad, they still are in use, esp. for rectification, but suffer from ready thermal runaway.

    Sorry I'll shut up now...

  21. Captain DaFt

    @ Tanya Cumpston

    Actually, it was Thomas Edison that said, "Invention is one percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration."

    To which Nikola Tesla replied." If you thought more you wouldn't sweat so much."

  22. Walking Turtle
    Black Helicopters

    Another early Transistor Example. (Also another Good Idea as bonus.)

    Those who Google one T. Henry Moray's work on macro-magnetic field electro-resonance devices ("free" 'leccy drawn from a circuit built on Earth made to resonate with the Cosmos-scale tho' semi-subtle "Vibrations of the Spheres" (sic), more/less, per what I do grasp third-hand of Tesla's "Radiant Energy" hypothesis) will sooner or later scope out patent drawings and maybe a photo or two related to yet another apparent (tho' early) solid-state junction-based switching device. (Offhand, I suspect germanium due to the apparently high frequency being apparently switched, resonated and thus exploited.)

    Dr. (PhD) Moray's little breadbox was apparently fitted with a ground rod, an antenna, and a "Bump-um-up" start-switch. It seems to have had a way of powering banks of lamps, multiple high-wattage heaters and suchlike *resistive* loads for indefinite periods, with no inclination toward overload or excessive heating-up on its own part. By the extant photos and descriptions of the nature of the light produced at his live demos, though, it seems quite clear that the as-delivered electrical fluid's base freq was likely much higher than our modern 50- or 60-cycle grids tend to provide today. Franlky, the effect looks to myself just like something a Tesla coil would produce if it rang like a bell, only with more amps and less volts.

    Fatter wire, fewer turns, tuned just so... "Tickled" just so, like a resonance kick-start or a rubber hammer on the bell's rim... Hmmm...

    The switching device, as illustrated on the sites I visited (you go too; kindly do!) looked (to myself) like a somewhat crude and certainly sizeable (as well as arguably effective) germanium (I deduce; crystal-based, anyway) switching device encapsulated in a blown glass envelope, when I first started puzzling over it on a few "Radiant Energy" Web sites a few months back.

    One expects that a decently similar power-capture device might be built from off-the-shelf bits these days, really. Germanium's 300mV forward junction-drop sure takes better to a gentle initial ticklin' than any 700mV silicon-junction device might ever, when the steady-state alternating input energy's mebbe a bit on the feeble side... Hm. Then there's power MOSFETs these days...? (Gee, I sure would like to build one of those workhorses - looks like it;s Worth Doing Right.)

    And that is Item One. As for Item Two:

    Ah, yes, things worth building. Let us now (at last!) have ourselves a decent triple-expansion, triple-compound, 120° radial-axis Serpollet-design-derived steam-driven expansion engine (with multifuel-capable monotube boiler) for immediate application to the post-petrol challenges of fuel-versatile, closed-cycle, non-toxic (yes) light steam vehicle propulsion purposes, shall we? It seems clear that we shall soon need such cost-effective drop-in conversion packages as these for soon-to-be-moribund explosion-driven vehix, I think...

    Seal 'em semi-permanently inside a cut-down 55-gal oil drum or similar enclosure; bolt 'em flat to the rear floor of the ol' SUV like a phat steel pancake. Couple the package's crankshaft thru a right-angle box directly to the differential's universal joint.

    Valve timing works thru a simple linkage mech, cable-controlled (If neither digital telemetry nor hydraulic control methods hold any appeal) through the side of the can... Steam enters (and spent vapor exits) the propulsion mechanism through headers in the sidewall, too.

    Steam lines route under the floor, of course. Well-insulated, of course, from boiler to engine. The "exhaust" vapor is piped forward to the condenser, naturally. Feed-pump and auxiliary electrical generation from a wee secondary direct-drive double-acting chuffer or hi-tech turbine/gearbox, off to the side under the bonnet. (I like the chuffer, mese'f.)

    Little else need change, really... Likely gentler accel off the line, is all. Maybe no more shriekin' jackrabbit tyre-burns left at the crossroads... But no terrible limit on the top speed either, given only proper design. (The "throttle" sets that variable in place; remember it's the variable valve timing that sets the road speed and direction in these pseudo-retro "light steam power" rigs.) No torque converter needed at all, either, US EPA opinions to the contrary notwithstanding, thankyouveddymuch.

    The 1913 world land speed record, remember, was set by a steamer. A novel steam bicycle won the annual student/open cycle race at MIT one early year, too, though the builder/driver/winner of that coal-burning three-lap winner tragically died of a heart attack at or a little before reaching the finish line.)

    Now consider the Shabbos benefits of a near-silent propane-fueled steam-driven radial-engine lawn mower. Especially when one is the goyische neighbor and Saturday is the *one* day off... That one-lung blappin' stinkin' gas-burner's never ever likely to be made really quiet enough; we all know that.

    So the boiler belongs where the V-8 once throbbed. Burn anything from wood- or hemp-pellets thru sugarcane bagasse to peanut oil to cheap perfume if that's all you got. Use a Fresnel array and align that monotube's tracking accordingly, and off you go. (Just Boil It.) Methane and suchlike gaseous scavenge can work well too, with platinated refractory wool sandwiched-in 'tween pancake-wound monotube layers for combustion efficiency's sake.

    The condenser goes where the radiator once was. Then the feed-water is pumped back to the boiler as mentioned. Good seals make for little loss and very favorable vehicle range indeed.

    Yep, this one's core components are sure due for a wireframe animation treatment any day now. A little OpenGL graphics creativity oughta' do it. You'll know when she hits the post-conceptual stage; just look for a Very Fancy Steam Engine Screensaver. But please, me beloved droogies, don't hesitate to beat me to it - machine shop and all.

    Um, the physics review is already long since done. Easier to re-generate it all these days than in most, I'll warrant. I won't mind a bit, let alone sue, should anyone well-positioned pull this one off themselves bigtime, really, and (only collateraly; nothing more though perhaps tragically unavoidable) help starve The Dark Dickster's slick-sick-'n'-sinister torture forces right back to the place from whence they emerged to plague us all, I think. Let them eat their own diesel, they love it so. (Hmph.) Oh well.

    Keep on thinking free, me laddy-bucks! Take up lathes and milling-machines and boring mills and diamond-plating surface-finishing gear for PEACE, shall we just, already? I do think so, and I already drive a fine homegrown 24-volt electric PPEV every day, all over town. Haven't burnt but eight measly gallons of diesel and some three quarts of naptha (as BBQ charcoal lighter) in the year gone by, truth be known to all. (My money stays mine longer, that way.)

    Uh-oh. There's that pesky Al-Quaida(Halley-burton)/Al-Quaida(Exxon) yee-haw jee-hahd petroslavery-enforcement blacksuit goon-skwad a-circlin' back 'round th' block in this remarkably monolithic moonlight; they musta' homed in on me broadband agin... Glad that dang Hummer of theirs's got a rotted muffler... (Crap tinpot import steel, like as not.) Gotta' log off an' split now; hit the tunnels an' change me hairstyle right PDQ again. Can't sleep now, clowns'll tase me...

    Peace. I'm out.

This topic is closed for new posts.

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020