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The Transistor at 75: The First Makers, Part 2

Part 1 of this article discussed the spark that ignited the commercial semiconductor industry. It was the 1952 Transistor Symposium conducted by Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL). A book published by BTL called A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Electronics Technology (1925-1975) stated that twenty-six domestic and fourteen foreign transistor licensees of the BTL transistor patents attended the symposium. That’s a total of 40 licensees. However, Bo Lojek’s book titled History of Semiconductor Engineering listed only 34 companies in attendance:

  1.       Arnold Engineering
  2.       Automatic Electric
  3.       Automatic Telephone and Electric Company
  4.       The Baldwin Company
  5.       Bowser
  6.       British Thompson-Houston Company
  7.       Bulova Watch Company
  8.       Crane Company
  9.       England Electric Company
  10.   Felten & Guilleaume Carlswerk
  11.   General Electric Company (US)
  12.   Globe-Union
  13.   Hanovia Chemical and Manufacturing Company
  14.   Hughes Tool Company (Hughes Aircraft)
  15.   IBM Corp
  16.   IT&T Corp
  17.   Lenkurt Electric Company
  18.   LM Ericsson
  19.   T.R. Mallory
  20.   Microwaves Associates
  21.   Minneapolis Honeywell
  22.   National Cash Register Company
  23.   National Fabricated Fabrics
  24.   NV Philips
  25.   Pye
  26.   Radio Development and Research Corp
  27.   Radio Reception Company
  28.   Raytheon Manufacturing
  29.   Siemens and Halske
  30.   Sprague Electric Company
  31.   Telefunken Gesellschaft
  32.   Texas Instruments
  33.   Transistor Products
  34.   Tung-Sol Electric


Some of the companies on this list may have purchased transistor licenses but never manufactured parts. For example, National Fabricated Fabrics is listed in a 1956 publication called Electronic Industries and Tele-Tech as a Chicago-based connector manufacturer. I find no indication that the company ever made transistors. However, National Fabricated Products, also in Chicago, and an electronic component manufacturer that made sockets, plugs, and terminal strips – very likely the same company – founded a semiconductor division called National Semiconductor Products in Evanston, Illinois (not to be confused with National Semiconductor, which was founded in 1959). However, it appears that National Semiconductor Products only made semiconductor diodes, not transistors.

Lenkurt and Automatic Electric were major equipment suppliers to the Bell System and did not manufacture transistors. These companies likely attended BTL’s second transistor symposium with the intent of learning to use transistors in the design of their equipment. For example, Lenkurt was heavily involved in developing microwave carrier equipment for telephone communications during the early 1950s and presented transistor application circuit designs at subsequent transistor symposia such as the 1956 IRE Transistor Circuits Conference.  

I found no company from the early 1950s named “Arnold Engineering,” but the name might well refer to the US Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) at Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee. AEDC was created in 1949 to be the primary jet and rocket development center for the Air Force. This military operation would have been quite new during the transistor symposia of 1951 and 1952 and I can well imagine that AEDC would want to learn about transistors for its relatively new mission: aerospace testing and simulation. There was heavy US military participation in the two BTL transistor symposia.

Bowser likely refers to the Technical Refrigeration Division of Bowser, Inc. That company was a frequent advertiser in Electronics magazine in the early 1950s and made high-altitude test chambers used for testing aircraft instruments and other equipment that operated at high altitudes. The company’s test chambers controlled temperature, humidity, and air pressure. They could also introduce sand and dust into the environmental mix. There’s no indication that any company named Bowser ever manufactured transistors, but the Technical Refrigeration Division of Bowser may well have been interested in incorporating this new technology into their rather complex test equipment.

Per Lojek’s list, National Cash Register (NCR) attended the 1952 transistor symposium, but the company did not create its first microelectronics lab, located in Colorado Springs, until 1963. However, NCR was likely to be very interested in using transistors rather than making them. The company introduced its first large computer, the transistorized NCR 304, in 1957. NCR started to ship this computer in 1959.

Similarly, the Bulova Watch Company never manufactured transistors, but it was the first watchmaker to incorporate transistors into a wristwatch. Swiss engineer Max Hetzel joined Bulova in 1948. By 1952, he was actively working on an electronic watch design that used a mechanical tuning fork as a precision time reference. His design used a resonant electronic circuit to drive the mechanical tuning fork at 360 Hz. He patented a design for the watch in 1953 and took possession of some Raytheon CK722 transistors to start creating prototype watches that same year. By 1955, Hetzel had built prototypes. Bulova introduced the transistorized Accutron wristwatch in 1960. My grandfather, Oscar Leibson, bought one, and I can remember holding it close to my ear to hear its signature 360 Hz hum. I still have that watch.

Though it seemed very unlikely, it occurred to me that “The Baldwin Company” could well refer to the Baldwin Piano Company of Cincinnati. (I grew up 90 miles from Cincinnati.) A quick bit of research established that the Baldwin Piano Company does indeed have an interesting connection to Bell Labs. That connection is through Dr. Winston E. Kock, a degreed electrical engineer with a PhD in physics who worked on microwaves and radar at Bell Labs during World War II and later became the first Director of NASA’s Electronics Research Center. Before the war, Kock was the Baldwin Piano Company’s director of electronic research.

Baldwin introduced a tube-based electronic organ in 1946 that used subtractive analog synthesis tone-generation circuitry designed and patented by Koch in 1941. This electronic organ was a sophisticated piece of electronic gear for the day, and I can well imagine that Kock could have convinced Baldwin that it should be very interested in the potential replacement of the many vacuum tubes with transistors in its electronic musical instruments. Kock received more than 200 patents, wrote books on radar, sonar, laser, and holography, and wrote novels under the pen name Wayne Kirk. I can easily imagine that the ever-curious Kock might have cajoled Baldwin into buying a transistor license just so that he could attend this symposium.

Did Kock know about transistors at the time? Most assuredly. In March 1949, Kock and R.L. Wallace, both at Bell Labs, published an article titled “The Coaxial Transistor” in the IEEE’s Electrical Engineering, predecessor to today’s IEEE Spectrum. Kock also published a book titled The Creative Engineer: The Art of Inventing in 1978. The book’s second chapter, titled “The Transistor,” details the development of the transistor at Bell Labs. Much of this is conjecture on my part, although the circumstantial evidence is very strong. In any case, I found no hint of a Baldwin Company that made transistors.

Per the BTL book, the list of symposium attendees with only 34 names is clearly incomplete because there were 40 licensees in attendance. I was sure some of the companies on Lojek’s list never produced transistors, as I’ve discussed in this article. I also know that at least two early transistor licensees, Motorola and Totsuka (later renamed Sony) are missing from the list. That meant I’d need to compile my own list of early transistor manufacturers.

That list, and brief stories about the diverse US companies that appear on that list, appear in Parts 3 and 4 of this article series. Part 5 discusses early European transistor makers, and Part 6 will conclude this series with a discussion of Japanese companies that were the first to manufacture transistors.



A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Electronics Technology (1925-1975)

History of Semiconductor Engineering, Bo Lojek

Watch Information and History: About Bulova Accutron Watches, Mark Sirianni

Winston Kock and the Baldwin Organ, Colin Pykett

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