Gadget That Changed The World


By Dylan Leckie, Office of Naval Research

It was Dec. 16, 1947 and while most Americans were preparing for the Christmas holiday, three physicists were locked in their laboratory, hunched over a work bench, constructing a peculiar gadget that would forever change the world. The transistor – the Bell Laboratories invention built by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley – would become ubiquitous in the future world.

Since its invention those many years ago, investments made by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) have extended and improved the transistor technology developed by Bell Labs. This month, which marks the 65th anniversary of the first transistor, ONR officials remember the invention and are reflecting upon the organization’s contributions to the evolution of the transistor – a technology regarded by many as the most significant scientific development of the 20th century.



ONR’s mission to serve the warfighter has benefitted enormously from the transistor.

“I can’t imagine how cumbersome and clunky some of the equipment that I used as a Navy electronics technician would be without the use of transistors, said ONR Master Chief Charles Ziervogel.

This Friday afternoon, Dec. 14, the Office of Innovation will be hosting a command-wide cake cutting in the Fran Rothwell Room to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. Dr. Lawrence Schuette will speak briefly about the transistor and its importance to the work ONR has done over the years.

To cite just one example, ONR has long invested in compound semiconductors to extend the germanium and silicon technology developed at Bell Labs into new materials with enhanced performance. These compound semiconductors, such as gallium arsenide, formed the basis for manyDepartment of Defense electronics platforms, and stimulated the development of an entire pillar of modern commercial communications technology, including the cell phone.

More recently, ONR’s investment in gallium nitride (GaN) transistor technology enabled the transistors powering the Navy’s latest, most capable radar systems, including the proposed Air and Missile Defense Radar. GaN devices are also found in portable systems Marines are using to defeat improvised explosive devices.

“Beyond the Navy, ONR-supported GaN technology is also at the heart of the latest generation base stations, and is being developed for more efficient power converter technology,” said Dr. Daniel Green, program officer in ONR’s Electronics Sensors and Network research department.

Such technology will be found in future hybrid electric vehicles, which will achieve unmatched efficiency in power conversion.

“There is an allure to the story of the transistor, one that spans generations in depth and breadth,” said Dr. Lawrence Schuette, director of innovation and acting director of research at ONR. “To build the first transistor in 1947, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley drew upon lifetimes of work by other scientists and ever since, engineers around the world have been working on the technology. Scientists have dedicated their lives to evolving and improving the transistor and today, Americans cannot imagine their lives without it.

“It is a story of American innovation and imagination and what Americans can create.”

In 1980, Brattain told the Los Angeles Times: “The only regret I have about the transistor is its use for rock ‘n’ roll music. I still have my rifle, and sometimes when I hear that noise, I think I could shoot them all.”

We are never more than a few feet away from transistors – they are everywhere. Without them, the world as we know it would be unrecognizable. If Brattain had decided to pick up his rifle and shoot all transistors, mankind would have never seen the space age, the academic study of solid-state physics, the computer revolution, the internet, wireless communication, the transistor radio or, yes, heard the noise of rock music.

Luckily, he let the band play on.