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The Transistor at 75: The First Makers, Part 4

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 list 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

Some of the names on this list are companies that never manufactured transistors. Some of the company names should be familiar to you, and some were completely unknown to me. 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. I resolved to compile a list of my own. Part 2 of this article discussed companies on this list that never made transistors. Part 3 discussed the first eleven US companies that did make transistors during the early 1950s. This article discusses eleven more US companies that made transistors during the early 1950s.

US BTL Transistor Licensees Plus a Few Others (N through Z)

  1.       National Union Radio Corp: Founded as a tube maker in 1929, National Union Radio Corp started to research semiconductors in 1952 at the company’s Semiconductor Division in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. This research date strongly suggests that this company is one that’s missing from Bo Lojek’s list of attendees at the second BTL Transistor Symposium in 1952. The company was selling transistors by 1953 and then ceased production in 1954. National Union transistors are distinct because they’re painted a light green.
  2.       Philco: The company started as the Helios Electric Company in 1892 and became the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company in 1906. The Philco brand name first appeared in 1919. The company started making radios in 1926 and car radios in 1930. Philco developed a superior high-frequency alloy-junction transistor structure, called the surface-barrier transistor, with a correspondingly high-tech manufacturing process, in 1953. Philco licensed this technology to other companies including Sprague and Semiconductors Limited, a division of the British-based Plessey Company. Ford bought Philco in 1961 and then slowly tired of the brand. The company operated as Philco-Ford until 1975 but Ford dropped the semiconductor operations in 1971. After 1971, the remains of Philco became Aeroneutronic Ford for a year, and then Ford Aerospace and Communications until 1990, when Ford sold the remaining aerospace operations to Loral.
  3.       Radio Receptor Company: Radio Receptor started making radios in 1922 and diversified into a variety of electronics markets. The company licensed transistor patents from BTL, GE, and RCA and was making germanium transistors and diodes by 1952. It spun out the semiconductor manufacturing business as General Transistor in 1954 and then merged with General Instrument (GI) in 1957. GI shuttered General Transistor in 1960. 
  4.       RCA: After Bell Labs announced the development of the transistor, RCA started its own development work, replicating Bell Labs’ results and then doing its best to work around any BTL transistor patents because David Sarnoff’s RCA strongly preferred selling patent licenses, not buying them. However, it’s clear from comments made by Stuart Seeley, then head of RCA’s Industrial Service Laboratory, that RCA did obtain a BTL transistor patent license and did attend the 1951 and 1952 Transistor Symposia. Starting in 1948, RCA developed many transistor prototypes and was ready to license its own transistor patents and to support its licensees with its own transistor symposium held in November 1952. RCA launched its own line of commercial transistors in May 1953.
  5.       Raytheon: Raytheon started making vacuum tubes in 1922. During World War II, the company made magnetron tubes and radar systems. Raytheon started making germanium-based semiconductor diodes in the 1940s and, just months after BTL announced the development of the transistor in late 1947, started making its own point-contact transistors using germanium salvaged from Sylvania diodes. After attending the 1952 BTL transistor symposium and licensing the alloy junction transistor patents from GE, the company quickly started making germanium transistors including one of the most famous transistors of that generation, the CK722, which was simply a rejected commercial CK718 transistor with downgraded specs for the hobby market. (Jack Ward has created an entire museum around the Raytheon CK722 PNP transistor.) Raytheon exited the semiconductor business in 1962.
  6.       Sprague: Robert Sprague started a company to manufacture electrical parts in 1926, and he named the company after himself: Sprague Specialties. One of those specialties was capacitors, especially the Midget radio capacitor. Sprague supplied components to the US war effort during World War II and was one of the first 26 US companies to purchase a BTL transistor patent license. The company started its semiconductor research effort in 1952, and its first commercial transistor was a ruggedized germanium point-contact device. Sprague subsequently licensed a high-frequency, surface-barrier transistor line from Philco and continued to market these devices even after Philco left the transistor business in 1963, which was shortly after Ford purchased Philco.
  7.       Sylvania: NILCO, Sylvania, and the Hygrade Lamp Company merged into the Hygrade Sylvania Corporation in 1931. By 1939, the company was developing fluorescent lamp tubes. The company changed its name to Sylvania Electric Products in 1942 and developed a successful line of vacuum tubes, which it continued to sell until the 1980s. During World War II, Sylvania developed crystal diodes for the military effort, so the company had ample experience with germanium semiconductors when BTL announced its development of the point-contact transistor in 1947. By 1949, Sylvania was offering a germanium transistor it developed on its own. The company apparently cross-licensed transistor patents with RCA because Sylvania started producing a copy of RCA’s 2N32 point-contact transistor and 2N34 junction transistor in 1953. Sylvania merged with General Telephone to form General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) in 1959. GTE Sylvania subsequently created a successful semiconductor replacement parts business using the “ECG” brand, which it sold through the 1980s. The Sylvania brand now belongs to Osram, and the brand is used for lighting products, just as they were in 1939.
  8.       Texas Instruments: Dallas-based Geophysical Service Inc. (GSI) was founded in 1930 as a manufacturer of equipment and exploration services that used refraction and reflection seismology to look for petroleum deposits. In other words, the company used explosives and sonar to look for oil during the Texas oil boom. GSI’s exploration business declined during World War II, and the company took on more and more manufacturing contracts for military equipment to bring in revenue. By 1945, the company was convinced that it needed to branch out into new markets, and it hired Patrick Haggerty to find those markets. Haggerty was an electrical engineer and was considering the vacuum tube business as a likely new venture. Then BTL announced its invention of the transistor, and the path became clear. Although highly motivated to get a patent license, BTL was not impressed by the oil exploration company but eventually relented and sold GSI a transistor patent license. In 1951, GSI formed a new company, General Instruments, and made itself a subsidiary. The new company would focus on making electronic components. However, the name General Instruments (actually, General Instrument) was taken and the name’s original owner objected, so Texas Instruments (TI) was born a year later. TI made its first transistors in 1952 and was advertising germanium point-contact transistors for sale in Electronics magazine by March 1953 with the words “uniform characteristics assured,” which is a Texas-sized promise for a point-contact transistor if ever there was one. The same ad promised that junction transistors would become available soon.
  9.       Transistor Products: In 1952, oil- and fuel-filter maker Purolator announced that it had decided to diversify into the manufacture of transistor products through a newly formed subsidiary called, of course, Transistor Products. Purolator had obtained a BTL transistor patent license and made Roland Holt the new president of the subsidiary. Holt owned equipment maker Scientific Specialties, which would be making and supplying semiconductor manufacturing equipment to Transistor Products. Representatives from Transistor Products attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium, and the company was producing point-contact and junction transistors by 1953. That same year, Clevite Corp of Cleveland bought 51% of Transistor Products from Purolator. It had bought Brush Development Corp in the UK, another BTL transistor patent licensee, in 1952. Transistor Products advertisements from 1953 onward listed the company as an operating unit of Clevite, which purchased the rest of Transistor Products in 1955. Transistor Products became Clevite Transistor Products in 1959. Clevite acquired Shockley Transistor Corp in 1960 and integrated it into the company’s Transistor Division. ITT acquired Clevite’s Transistor Division in 1965. The rest of Clevite was acquired in 1969 by Gould-National Batteries, Inc.
  10.   Transitron: Leo and David Bakalar founded Transitron Electronic Corp in 1952. The company made diodes and then obtained a BTL transistor patent license and started making transistors. By late 1954, Transitron had secured cross-licensing agreements with RCA, GE, and Raytheon and started making second-source copies of transistors from those companies. The company switched to silicon transistors in 1957 and soon became one of the top three transistor makers in the US. Transitron went public in 1959, making the Bakalar brothers instant multi-millionaires. However, Jean Hoerni’s invention of the planar transistor at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1959 soon posed a serious threat to that position. Although Transitron continued to compete in the high-reliability and military semiconductor markets, the company finally closed its doors in 1986. After serving as Transitron’s president from 1952 through 1984, David Bakalar stepped down and became a noted sculptor.
  11.   Tung-Sol: Harvey Wilson Harper and brothers Herbert E and Herbert C Plass founded the Howard Electric Novelty Company in 1904, the year that Harper patented a machine for making incandescent lamp bulbs. The Howard Electric Novelty Company also made electric trains and, along the way, seems to have invented electric lights for Christmas trees. The company became Tung-Sol in 1924, taking its name from tungsten, the element used for making incandescent filaments, and “sol,” meaning “sun.” By 1930, the company had expanded into vacuum tubes and renamed itself Tung-Sol Radio Tubes Inc. Tung-Sol soon became a major tube manufacturer. The company was an early BTL transistor patent licensee and attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium but did not produce engineering samples until 1953. It announced the availability of commercial transistors in 1954. Because Tung-Sol was producing automobile parts such as headlights, the company attempted to merge with another car parts manufacturer, Purolator Products, in 1963. The merger failed, but Tung-Sol successfully merged with the Wagner Electric Manufacturing Company in 1966, and the merged company was acquired by the Studebaker Corporation in 1967. Later that year Studebaker became the Studebaker-Worthington Corporation through a merger. Tung-Sol’s semiconductor operations disappeared somewhere along the way, and the company’s tube manufacturing appears to have ceased in the early 1970s. However, you can get freshly manufactured Tung-Sol vacuum tubes, which are still highly prized by audiophiles. They’re made in Russia these days, in a factory owned by music equipment maker Electro-Harmonix, which now holds the Tung-Sol brand trademark.
  12.   Westinghouse: George Westinghouse founded Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in 1886. The company manufactured an expansive line of electrical and electronic components for the electric power generation and transmission infrastructure and eventually for radios and televisions. The company changed its name to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1945 and eventually became a giant corporate conglomerate. Westinghouse created a semiconductor group in the early 1950s to develop high power transistors, and the company introduced its first two devices, a point-contact transistor and a junction transistor, in 1953. By the end of 1954, Westinghouse had released more new junction transistors than any other transistor maker. By early 1958, Westinghouse had switched from germanium to silicon and was marketing a 150-watt silicon power transistor. By 1961, the company’s power transistors could handle 250 watts. Disastrous loans made by Westinghouse Credit Corp caused a billion-dollar loss in 1990, and the company went through significant restructuring. The company bought CBS Inc in 1995, renamed itself CBS Corp in 1997, and sold off its non-broadcast businesses in the process. Viacom bought CBS Corp in 1999. After a series of confusing splits and mergers, Viacom is now named Paramount Global. Westinghouse Electric Corp was formed as a brand-management subsidiary in 1998 and now owns the Westinghouse brand. Today, you can find the Westinghouse brand slapped on consumer electronics made by other manufacturers, but you can be sure it’s not Westinghouse.


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.     National Union Radio Corp
  2.     Philco
  3.     Radio Receptor Company 
  4.     RCA
  5.     Raytheon
  6.     Sprague
  7.     Sylvania
  8.     Texas Instruments
  9.     Transistor Products
  10.     Transitron
  11.     Tung-Sol
  12.  Westinghouse


Oral History of David Bakalar, Interviewed by Gardner Hendrie, Computer History Museum

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