Retrotechtacular: The Transistor (1953 Film)

If we cast our minds back to the early years of the transistor, the year that is always quoted is 1947, during which a Bell Labs team developed the first practical germanium point-contact transistor. They would go on to be granted the Nobel Prize for their work in 1956, but the universal adoption of their invention was not an instantaneous process. Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.

First point contact transistor via kasap3

To speed up this process, Bell Labs made every effort to publicize their invention. Thus we come to our subject today, their 1953 publicity film The Transistor, in which the electronics industry of the era is described and how each part of it might revolutionize by the transistor is laid out.

We start with a look at a selection of electronic components, among which are a few transistors. The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base connections.

Unexpectedly we don’t dive straight into the world of transistors, but take a look back at the earlier years of the century to the development of vacuum electronics. We’re taken through the early development  and operation of vacuum tubes, then their use in long-distance radio communications, through the advent of electronics in mass entertainment, and finally into the world of radar and microwave links. Only then do we return to the transistor, with a posed shot of [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] hard at work in a lab. The merits of the transistor as opposed to the tube are then set out, though we can’t help wondering whether they have confused a milliwatt and a microwatt when they describe the transistor as requiring only a millionth of a watt to operate.

Along the way, we gain a fascinating glimpse of the inside of a Western Electric transistor manufacturing plant. Not the clean rooms and clean-suited workers you’d expect today, but rows of people in normal clothing sitting at desks, assembling transistor packages by hand in gloveboxes. These were still expensive and specialist devices.

As you might expect given Bell’s primary industry, the film then looks at the places in which the transistor will change the telephony industry. Transistorized exchange equipment, and amplifiers for long rural phone lines or undersea cables.

The final segment of the film is where, from our perspective, it becomes the most interesting. The film starts future-gazing, and speculating about how the transistor might affect other technologies. Starting with a wrist-mounted radio and an artist’s impression of an improbably-bulky portable television, the film then talks about how transistorized computers will no longer have huge power and space requirements, and could soon be small enough to fit in a single room.

Obviously this film was made before the invention of the integrated circuit, and microprocessor-powered computers were so far outside what was expected as to be inconceivable. But it is interesting to look at the difference between the electronics industry of the early 1950s and that of today, not in terms of the type of electronics but its breadth. Almost all the analogue tasks performed by electronics in the film are now performed digitally, but that is not the real electronic revolution. In 1953 this film could describe most common applications for electronics because few everyday machines contained them. Your telephone, your typewriter, your oven, your food mixer, and a hundred other devices in your life were mechanical, not electronic. By contrast now it is rather uncommon for a device to be manufactured that does not contain some electronics, such has been the success of the microcontroller. We may not yet be living in a Jetsons-style future someone in the 1950s might have expected, but if you’d shown our devices to the engineers in the film, they might have commented that we’re not far from it.

We’ve touched on early transistors before with another archive film in our Retrotechtacular series:  The Genesis Of The Transistor.

17 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Transistor (1953 Film)

    1. I love it! One day a computer could solve hundreds of maths problems a minute and fit in an office space, not require the output of a whole power station and Niagara falls for cooling!

      And there’s me watching the retro video on an Android tablet in bed. On battery power. A very humbling process of gradual improvement over 50+ years.

  1. “Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.”

    Picture tube. ;-)

    1. Yup, lots of stuff had just been invented, so they were yet to fill the world with crap. Then industry started making it faster than we had room for in our houses. Thus, economics invents artificial obsolescence.

      1. In the industrial setting, we call it “planned obsolescence.” The larger companies know that within 10 years something much newer and better will come along so they make sure that what we have now will *not* be supported forcing people to buy the hottest thing on the market.

      2. I the event artificial obsolescence is synonymous with planned obsolescence, this probably neither. Anyone who purchases more than they have room for can’t blame industry. I don’t have problem with tech driven obsolesce. Most of don’t want to be driving Model T tech or using vacuum tube TV sets or displays.

  2. In 1961, a professor said to me, “Transistors will never fully replace the vacuum tube. They’re too slow and can’t handle high power applications.” Come to think of it, my microwave oven still has a vacuum tube. In a way, he was right.

  3. I was born in 1947 the same year the transistor was invented so I’ve read. I grew up fixing and tearing up old tube radios more than I care to admit and some I re-purposed into amplifiers. But since I lived close to Camp Atterbury, we had a junk yard that had some military debris. I remember obtaining a transistor based device that had Texas Instruments point contact transistors inside. Being inquisitive, I opened one up and saw the whisker onto the semiconducting bar held in place by some sort of gel. I wondered how reliable could that contact be? Later I studied Physics at Purdue and was able to sit in on a class taught by Prof. Paul Simms who I worked for building detectors using some of the first glob top Fairchild ICs using the new planar process. It was a major breakthrough allowing for today’s LSI and VLSI devices.

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