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.
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 The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base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.