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 list was compiled some years ago by Bo Lojek:
at BTL in 1952. That list was compiled some years ago by Bo Lojek:
- Arnold Engineering
- Automatic Electric
- Automatic Telephone and Electric Company
- The Baldwin Company
- British Thompson-Houston Company
- Bulova Watch Company
- Crane Company
- England Electric Company
- Felten & Guilleaume Carlswerk
- General Electric Company (US)
- Hanovia Chemical and Manufacturing Company
- Hughes Tool Company (Hughes Aircraft)
- IBM Corp
- IT&T Corp
- Lenkurt Electric Company
- LM Ericsson
- T.R. Mallory
- Microwaves Associates
- Minneapolis Honeywell
- National Cash Register Company
- National Fabricated Fabrics
- NV Philips
- Radio Development and Research Corp
- Radio Reception Company
- Raytheon Manufacturing
- Siemens and Halske
- Sprague Electric Company
- Telefunken Gesellschaft
- Texas Instruments
- Transistor Products
- 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. Part 4 discussed eleven more US companies that made transistors during the early 1950s. This article discusses the European companies that made transistors during the early 1950s.
European BTL Transistor Licensees Plus a Few Others
- British Thompson-Houston: The British Thompson-Houston Company (BTH) was founded in 1896 with funding from General Electric in the US. This company has a unique connection to the creation of the first transistor at BTL, which may well explain why the company attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium. Harry Metcalfe, who worked in BTH’s Electronics Department from 1946 through 1954 recalls that Walter Brattain visited BTH in the late 1940s to learn how to refine germanium from Thomas Hilary Kinman, who had developed a process for extracting pure germanium from germanium oxide to make point-contact germanium diodes. Brattain needed germanium to create the original point-contact transistor at BTL. In exchange, Brattain told Kinman how to make transistors. Metcalfe was tasked with investigating transistors as possible replacements for vacuum tubes. He decided that the transistors were too fragile, that they had much too poor a frequency response relative to vacuum tubes, and they had no future. “I wrote a definitive paper showing that transistors would never be of use in real time systems,” he said in an interview. As a result, BTH appears to have disbanded its transistor research team in 1950. However, Lojek’s list confirms that BTH attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium, so the company must have had a BTL transistor patent license. Eventually, BTH did see a future for junction transistors and seems to have started making them by 1954.
- English Electric Valve Company: The English Electric Company Limited (EE) was a British industrial manufacturer formed in late 1918, after an armistice ended World War I. The new company amalgamated five other companies that had been making munitions, armaments, and aircraft for the war effort. EE manufactured industrial electric motors, power transformers, railway locomotives, diesel motors, and steam turbines. The company eventually got into the vacuum tube manufacturing business through an acquisition. In 1947, EE spun its vacuum tube business out into the English Electric Valve Company (EEV). Lojek’s list of BTL Transistor Symposium attendees includes EE, and it’s clear that the task of semiconductor manufacturing fell to EEV. It does not appear that the venture produced many transistors, however, and in 1960, EEV’s transistor business was folded into another UK transistor maker, Associated Transistors, which was founded in 1958. Mullard, a Philips component brand, acquired Associated Transistors in 1962.
- L.M. Ericsson: Lojek’s list of attendees at the 1952 Transistor Symposium lists L.M. Ericsson, so it’s quite likely that the company had a BTL transistor patent license, but there seems to be no online record that the Swedish telecommunications giant manufactured transistors in the early 1950s. Clearly, Ericsson did eventually get into the semiconductor business, because the company sold its microelectronics business to Infineon for €400 million in 2002. Ericsson entered the semiconductor business indirectly by absorbing Swedish electronic component maker RIFA in 1947. Back then RIFA made resistors and capacitors, but the company bought Svenska Elektronrör AB in 1967, which added vacuum tubes and semiconductors to its product line. RIFA became Ericsson Components in 1988, and then Ericsson Microelectronics in 2000.
- Felten & Guilleaume Carlswerk: The first stones for the Felten & Guilleaume Carlswerk factory in what would become the city of Cologne-Mülheim were laid in 1888. The company was a European maker of cables and high-voltage gear and never made transistors, even though the company appears on Lojek’s list of 1952 Transistor Symposium attendees. However, Süddeutsche Apparate-Fabrik (SAF), a company associated with Felten & Guilleaume, introduced a point-contact transistor in 1952, so it’s quite possible that SAF representatives did attend the symposium while using the corporate name of their associate.
- General Electric Company of England: Lojek’s attendee list for the 1952 Transistor Symposium includes the General Electric Company of England (GEC), a British industrial conglomerate founded in 1886. During World War II, GEC provided electrical and engineering products, including vacuum tubes, lamps and lighting equipment, to the war effort. The company also developed the cavity magnetron, which was an essential radar component. GEC attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium and started making point-contact transistors by 1953 and junction transistors by 1955. Although the company’s business thrived in subsequent decades, a series of failed acquisitions in the 1990s drove GEC to attempt a series of failed mergers. Ericsson bought the company’s remains in 2005, and GEC folded in 2006.
- Intermetall: German physicist Herbert Franz Mataré independently invented the point-contact transistor while working for the Compagnie des Freins & Signaux Westinghouse in France. During World War II, Mataré worked on germanium point-contact diode detectors for radios and studied the problems associated with detector noise. As part of his research, he experimented with using two closely spaced point contacts on the diode’s germanium bar instead of one. He also used this configuration in an attempt to develop matched dual diodes as a way to build better detectors. During his experiments, Mataré observed some sort of electrical interference between the two contacts. It’s likely he was observing a transistor-related effect. However, the germanium that Mataré was working with was not pure enough to create a transistor. After the war, Mataré was assigned to Compagnie des Freins & Signaux Westinghouse where he had access to purer germanium. He recreated his work at Telefunken during the war and independently replicated the BTL point-contact transistor just a few months after BTL succeeded. His work was independent because BTL’s development was kept confidential and was therefore unknown outside of Bell Labs. Mataré called his device the “transistron.” He founded Intermetall in 1952 to further develop the transistron and to focus on intermetallic compounds like III-V semiconductors such as gallium arsenide. Intermetall demonstrated a transistor radio at the Düsseldorf Radio Fair in 1953 based on the company’s point-contact devices, but Mataré was far more interested in researching III-V compounds than producing transistrons, so the company fared poorly. Clevite Transistor Products purchased Intermetall in 1955.
- N.V. Philips: Gerard Philips and his father Frederik founded Koninklijke Philips N.V. in 1891. The company made light bulbs. Philips later made radios and shavers (under the Norelco brand). The company started selling television sets in 1949 and started a record company in 1950. Philips had a dedicated solid state physics group within its corporate R&D lab starting in the 1930s. The group worked with the best known semiconductors of the time: copper oxide and selenium. The lab was well prepared for the news when BTL announced its development of the point-contact transistor. Philips already had a broad patent cross-licensing arrangement with BTL and subsequently licensed the transistor patents. Representatives from the company attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium. Philips replicated BTL’s point-contact transistor that same year and was making 1400 of these transistors per month by 1953. The company also started making prototypes of a junction transistor in 1952, licensed RCA’s alloy-junction transistor late that year, and started producing those transistors in March 1953. Philips marketed its transistors in the US branded as Amperex, in the UK under the Mullard brand, as La Radiotechnique in France, and in the rest of Europe under Valvo brand. These brands had started as independent companies that Philips acquired along the way. Philips remained a force in the semiconductor business, forming Philips Semiconductors in 1993, and then spinning that business out as NXP in 2006.
- Pye: In 1896, W. G. Pye, an instrument maker working in Cambridge University’s Cavendish Lab, started a part-time business that manufactured scientific instruments such as galvanometers. During World War I, Pye made military equipment including gunsights and signal lamps. The company started making radio receivers as teaching aids in 1922 and then branched out into consumer radio sets. Pye sold the radio business in 1928 and went back to making instruments and teaching aids. World War II drew Pye back into radio and added radar to the mix. After the War, Pye found itself back in the consumer radio business. When BTL announced the development of the transistor, Pye immediately saw its application for consumer radios, especially portable radios. Pye attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium and started producing transistors by 1956. During the 1950s, Pye also added record players and televisions to its growing line of consumer products. However, a series of bad business breaks in the 1960s put Pye in jeopardy, and the company was purchased by Philips in 1967. The various Pye companies continued to operate under their original names for another decade or two, until Philips managed to purchase all of the company’s shares.
- Siemens and Halske: Werner von Siemens and Johann Georg Halske founded Siemens and Halske in October 1847. The Berlin-based company built an advanced version of the telegraph, which was the hot new technology of the day. The company began building equipment for electrical power generation in 1867. Starting in the 1920s, Siemens and Halske branched out into a wide range of other types of electrical equipment including radios, television sets, and electron microscopes. During World War II, the company provided equipment to the Nazi government. The war also forced the company to disperse its factories and move its headquarters to Bavaria. Many of the company’s dispersed factories were co-located with and used slave labor from concentration camps during the war. Fortunately for everyone, World War II in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. Representatives from Siemens and Halske attended the 1952 Transistor Symposium, and the company was marketing commercial transistors by 1953. Siemens stayed in the semiconductor business, which it spun out as Infineon in 1999 to rid the parent company’s balance sheet of the cyclic ups and downs of the semiconductor business.
- Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd: In 1888, Western Electric, the US manufacturing arm of the US Bell System, founded the predecessor to Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) – named International Western Electric. In 1925, Western Electric decided to sell off its international holdings in an attempt to ward off antitrust action by the US federal government. It sold these operations to ITT, which then renamed the various International Western Electric operations. The UK operation became Standard Telephones and Cables (STC), which started manufacturing vacuum tubes in 1933. STC’s research labs built the first British transistor in 1949. STC’s parent company ITT appears on Lojek’s list of 1952 Transistor Symposium attendees, and STC did license BTL’s transistor patents in 1952. STC started manufacturing and selling point-contact transistors starting in 1949, and the world’s first transistorized computer, built by the University of Manchester, used 550 point-contact germanium diodes and 92 point-contact germanium transistors supplied by STC. That computer became operational in November 1953. STC’s fortunes rose and fell with its parent’s, and when ITT needed cash to develop a new telephone switching system between 1979 and 1982, it sold off all but a minority stake in STC. Alcatel Australia bought STC’s Australian operations in 1987, and Northern Telecom of Canada bought the rest of STC in 1991.
- Telefunken: In 1903, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered Siemens and Marconi, two of Germany’s major wireless vendors, to pool their resources and patents and create a joint venture company focused on the development of wireless communications. This company became known as Telefunken. (“Funken” is the German word for “sparks,” which is what you needed to generate radio waves in 1903.) The company’s decade’s worth of work on crystal radio detectors came in handy during the development of the transistor. Telefunken obtained a license to the BTL transistor patents and sent representatives to the 1952 Transistor Symposium. The company also licensed the superior RCA alloy-junction transistor design that year. Telefunken was in full production of germanium diodes by 1953 and demonstrated its first experimental point-contact transistor that same year. The following year at the Hannover Fair, Telefunken demonstrated alloy-junction transistors. Over the years, Telefunken expanded its semiconductor operations, and the company merged with AEG in 1967, creating AEG-Telefunken. Daimler bought that company in 1985 and dropped “Telefunken” from the company’s name. A Turkish company named Profilo Telra licensed the Telefunken trademark rights in 2006 and produces televisions using that brand.
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. These collectors and historians have put many, many hours into preserving and documenting the early histories of the transistor and its many commercial makers. In addition, I found a wealth of information about European transistor makers on a site developed by Andrew Wylie (Mister Transistor). Of note is the massive site maintained by former employees of Pye, a company I’d never heard of before writing this article. Below are the companies listed in this article with links to more information about their histories.