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The Transistor at 75: The First Makers, Part 3

Last November, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the announcement by Bell Telephone Labs (BTL) of the transistor’s birth. Many articles about the early transistor developments have appeared, but I started to wonder about the earliest commercial transistor vendors. In Part 1 of this article, I discussed an incomplete list of attendees at a transistor symposium that was held at BTL in 1952. That was compiled some years ago by Bo Lojek:

  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

The list is incomplete because BTL’s own publication says there were 40 licensees by the time this symposium was held and there are only 34 companies on this list. Some of the names on this list are companies that never manufactured transistors, as discussed in Part 2 of this article series. Some of the company names should be familiar to you, and some were completely unknown to me. I resolved to compile a list of my own. This article and the next article in this series discuss the US companies that did make transistors during the early 1950s.

There are many collectors of early transistors from the 1950s, and some of these collectors are kind enough to publish short histories of the companies that made the transistors in their collections. I’ve noted two of these people in the references below. Look at enough of these online collections of early transistors and you start to build a list of early transistor makers, thus early transistor patent licensees, validated with photos of their transistors. So, here’s a compiled list of US transistor manufacturers that either attended the 1952 BTL transistor symposium or were making transistors during that period, along with short descriptions.

US BTL Transistor Licensees Plus a Few Others (A through M)

  1.       CBS-Hytron: Lloyd and Bruce Coffin founded Hytron in 1921 to make vacuum tubes. The firm shifted its focus to CRTs after World War II. CBS bought Hytron in 1951. (Yes that CBS – the Columbia Broadcast System, which brought you I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.) Representatives from CBS-Hytron attended the 1952 BTL transistor symposium, and the company was making germanium transistors for IBM by 1953. CBS-Hytron ceased operations in 1961.
  2.       Centralab Division of Globe-Union: Battery maker Globe Electric was founded in 1912. The company made large batteries for the electric traction systems in streetcars and rural lighting systems, and to power telephone company switchboards. The company started making battery-powered radios in the 1920s and then merged with Union Battery in 1929 to form Globe-Union. Apparently, the company wasn’t all that particular about what it made because it also manufactured roller skates, automobile spark plugs, and golf clubs. It formed an electronics division named Centralab, which made radios and radar-based proximity fuses during World War II. The proximity fuse design prompted Centralab to develop thick-film hybrid technology built on ceramic substrates, which naturally led to the development of circuit boards after the war ended. In 1947, Centralab hired Jack Kilby and sent him to the 1952 BTL transistor symposium. Centralab then started fabricating germanium transistors, focusing on hearing aids, which was a large initial market for transistors because Alexander Graham Bell had stipulated that any company making use of Bell patents for hearing aids would pay no royalties to Bell. Kilby left Centralab in 1958 in an attempt to dodge a possible recession-driven layoff. He joined Texas Instruments and promptly co-invented the integrated circuit.
  3.       General Electric (GE): GE was founded in 1892 when Edison General Electric Company of Schenectady, New York merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts. GE made all things electric and electronic and was already making germanium diodes in the 1940s in addition to an extensive line of vacuum tubes, so the transition into transistors came quite naturally. GE made semiconductors for several decades until the company sold its semiconductor operations in 1988.
  4.       Germanium Products Corporation: Radio Development and Research created the Germanium Products Corp (GPC) division in 1952. The new company soon placed ads announcing the availability of germanium grown-junction transistors. After silicon transistors appeared and became commercially successful, the market for germanium transistors dwindled.
  5.       Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company: Today, we know this company simply as Honeywell, a company with a long history of control systems for heating and air conditioning systems as well as industrial control. Honeywell quickly saw the transistor’s potential to revolutionize its products and was an early transistor patent licensee. Development work on a high-power transistor for industrial control started in 1953, and, by the end of that year, the company had announced a 20-watt transistor for an aircraft application. That transistor was developed for internal use, but the company offered an essentially similar commercial device to the market the following year.
  6.       Hughes Tool company (Hughes Aircraft): Hughes was prototyping coaxial point-contact transistors based on the BTL design by 1949 and grown-junction transistors by 1951 and marketed transistors for many years. In 1953, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge left Hughes to start Ramo-Wooldridge, which merged with Thompson Products in 1958 to create TRW. Dr. Harper North, Hughes’ Director of Semiconductor Research, left Hughes in 1954 to form Pacific Semiconductors with Ramo-Wooldridge’s help and Thompson’s funding. Pacific Semiconductors merged with TRW to become the TRW Semiconductor Division. Northrop Grumman bought TRW in 2002.
  7.       Hydro-Aire: The Crane Company, an engineering firm and diversified manufacturer founded way back in 1855, was one of the first companies to license the transistor patents from Bell Labs/Western Electric, and representatives from The Crane Company attended the BTL transistor symposium in 1952. The previous year, The Crane company had purchased Hydro-Aire, a company that had been founded in 1943 to make soldering irons and electric wall heaters. During World War II, Hydro-Aire expanded into the manufacture of hydraulics including pumps and valves for aviation. After its acquisition in 1951, Hydro-Aire established an electronics division to make semiconductors. The company was marketing germanium point-contact transistors by 1953. In 1955, Hydro-Aire sold its Electronics Division to the Mar Vista Electronics Company, where its transistors were branded “Marvelco.” Mar Vista soon became the Marvelco subsidiary of National Aircraft Corporation, and the company’s transistor story seems to end shortly after that. Meanwhile, Crane’s Hydro-Aire Division continued to make pumps and valves and supplied the cooling pumps used inside the Apollo moon program’s  lunar landing module.
  8.       IBM: When BTL announced the transistor’s development, IBM immediately recognized the potential value it represented for computer design. The company had prototyped point-contact devices by 1950 and junction transistors by 1952. IBM announced its first fully transistorized product, the IBM 608 calculator, in April 1955, and its first transistorized computer, the IBM 7070, in 1958. That computer was not successful because it was not backwards compatible with the company’s tube-based model 705 computer. IBM fixed the compatibility issue by introducing the compatible IBM 7080 computer in 1961. Although IBM had its early transistors manufactured by other semiconductor vendors, the company started to manufacture its own devices in 1956 and has been heavily involved with leading-edge semiconductor research ever since.
  9.       Mallory: Although Bo Lojek’s list of attendees at BTL’s 1952 Transistor Symposium includes “T.R. Mallory,” the company’s actual name was P.R. Mallory, located in Indianapolis. Like several other early transistor licensees, Mallory started as an electronic component supplier in the 1920s. The company’s namesake capacitors were already used throughout the industry, especially in power supplies, and its small batteries were used in hearing aids. Mallory sought to expand its electronic component product line into related devices. Although Mallory attended the transistor symposium in 1952, the company did not start to develop its own transistors for another couple of years. A Mallory advertisement placed in the June 1, 1953 issue of Time magazine touted the transistor, implicitly acknowledged that Mallory was not yet making transistors, and then said “When they do reach market, you’ll find Mallory playing a vital role in the transistor field.”
  10.   Microwave Associates: Although Lojek’s list says, “Microwaves Associates,” the name of the company was Microwave Associates. Founded in Boston by four ex-Sylvania engineers, the company specialized in microwave components such as waveguides, magnetron tubes, and microwave and millimeter-wave semiconductor diodes. Although the company was one of the original transistor patent licensees and attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium, it did not make transistors for at least two and a half decades. Microwave Associates changed its name to M/A-COM in 1978, changed hands several times, and is now called MACOM. The company is still in the diode business and offers many other high-frequency and RF semiconductor lines as well.
  11.   Motorola: Paul Galvin founded Galvin Manufacturing Company in 1928 to make battery eliminators, which were ac-powered power supplies that replaced the batteries used in early home radios. That product was short-lived because radio makers started building the ac power supply into their equipment, so Galvin’s company started making radios for automobiles in 1930 and branded them “Motorola.” The product and the brand did so well for the company that the entire company simply assumed the product brand. Motorola, the company, soon branched out into 2-way radios for police, fire department, and the military. When BTL announced the transistor, it was an obvious fit for Motorola’s radio products, so the company bought an early license and was soon making power transistors. Motorola became a powerhouse in semiconductors, but the company succumbed to the turn-of-the-century fad of exposing share value and split its Semiconductor Products Sector (SPS) from the radio-making parent. From there, Motorola SPS exploded in a constellation of semiconductor companies, which include Onsemi (formerly ON Semiconductor). The rest of Motorola SPS is now owned by NXP (formerly Philips).


This article would have been impossible except for the extensive research done by Jack Ward, curator of the Transistor Museum, and Mark Burgess, proprietor of the Transistor History Web site. Both collectors and historians have put many, many hours into preserving and documenting the early histories of the transistor and its many commercial makers. Below are the companies listed in this article with links to more information about their histories.

  1.      CBS-Hytron
  2.     Centralab Division of Globe-Union
  3.     General Electric (GE)
  4.     Germanium Products Corporation
  5.     Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company
  6.     Hughes Aircraft
  7.     Hydro-Aire
  8.     IBM
  9.     Mallory
  10.  Microwave Associates
  11.   Motorola

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