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Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age (Sloan Technology) 1st Edition

11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393041248
ISBN-10: 0393041247
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

In rich detail, Riordan (The Hunting of the Quark, LJ 1/88) and Hoddeson (history, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) unfurl the development of the transistor (whose 50th anniversary will be December 1997) and the lives of its three principal discoverers?John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley. Of course, redoubtable scientific achievement is rarely engendered by a small cadre over just a few years, and one of the salient features of this book is its parallel exposition of the progress of the physics of the electron dating to the late 19th century, led by a host of well-known pioneers?Bohr, Heisenberg, and so many others. Standing on the shoulders of these giants while harvesting the fruits of their own astonishing research, the triumvirate of the transistor created the device that has revolutionized life today, making possible television, computers, and other electronic devices. Crystal Fire strives for the fast-paced feel that the subject deserves but often succumbs to pedestrian and cliche-ridden writing. Overall, however, this is a fine work, rounded out by an extensive bibliography and inexhaustible endnoes. Recommended for general collections.
-?Robert C. Ballou, Atlanta
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The solid-state amplifier, whose coinage as "transistor" is one of many intriguing stories the authors include in this history of the device's invention, merits comparison to the wheel, if only by the criterion that every person relies on both every day. The mother of invention was the vacuum tube, bulky, electricity hungry, and breakable, and physicists at Bell Labs furrowed their brows to come up with something more reliable. The solution involved the interaction between electric fields and solid materials of varying electrical conductivity, in which lies the engaging tale involving serendipity, professional competition, and theoretical breakthroughs culminating in the moment of Eureka in late 1947. The three principals who received the Nobel Prize for the transistor were not the best-oiled machine in history, and their biographies, which the authors intertwine with the technical developments, demonstrate the action of scientific ambition and hope for future riches in the creation of revolutionary inventions. The authorial team, a physicist and a historian, combine their strengths to present an accessible work worth most libraries' attention. Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Series: Sloan Technology
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (January 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393041247
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393041248
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,019,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By chulas_friend on January 10, 1998
Format: Hardcover
The authors created this book the old fashioned way with in depth interviews and research into unpublished materials. This makes it particularly interesting and credible. From discussion of the original patents to Bell Labs office politics and Shockley's diary, this book is a treasure trove of info.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Edelman TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Who would have thought a book about the invention of the transistor could be so compelling? And yet here it is. The authors tell two parallel stories, one about the inventors, and one about the developments in physics that led to, and followed from, the invention of the transistor. The interplay between pure science and technology has seldom been explained as well.
I'd put this book alongside "The Invention That Changed The World" as the two best popular histories of science an technology of the decade.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By on December 30, 1997
Format: Hardcover
With a clearer explanation of the basic forces behind semi-conductivity and less history of quantum physics, this book would rate a '10.' As it stands, the authors seem to assume at least B.S. level competence in physical chemsistry in their readers and dwell ponderously on a century of scientific history that is but vaguely related to the central topic: invention of the transistor and its spawning of the chip industry. Better to have extended the story forward to Grove (instead of stalling in the 1960s) than wending backward to Bohr, but then what would the authors do for a sequel? Still, a compelling read and recommended, especially if you brush up on your sub-atomic particle physics and keep the periodic table close-at-hand. Best of all is the book's concluding sentence: "For as fire illuminates, we must always remember, it also consumes." So it does--and if this story hooks you, it will consume 285 pages of bathroom time.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jason Black on August 28, 1997
Format: Hardcover
The story of the transistor's birth and early life is a long one, spanning decades. In Crystal Fire, the authors do a remarkable job of picking and choosing the relevant events in the world of physics and tying those events with the lives of the story's principal characters. This book gets particularly high marks for explaining quantum mechanical phenomena without resorting to higher levels of math than many of us remember. I was somewhat annoyed at first blush with how far back the authors start the story, but in the end my understanding of the workings of transistors, the personalities of its inventors, and the historical context in which it was invented was very well served by their narrative. The only fault I found was with the authors' propensity for referring to characters only by last name. There were many people involved in the transistor's birth, and I found the plethora of last names somewhat confusing.
I have loved books about the history of science for years; in reading them I feel some shred of the excitement and glory that the scientists themselves must have felt. In that respect, this book holds up beautifully, and I recommend it to anyone who loves science, and particularly electronics, as much as I do
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 16, 1997
Format: Hardcover
I can't remember a more absorbing book. Crystal
Fire is the story of the humble transistor-because
of its invention, you are reading this on-line.
The authors not only write beautifuly, it's
obvious that in-depth historical research was
involved. The main protagonists won the Nobel
Prize for their achievement, but in many cases
were less than worthy human beings. But Crystal
Fire is a compeling, absorbing read. Please don't
miss this one. In fact, Crystal Fire would make
one helluva movie. Hello, Holywood?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By T. Burket VINE VOICE on August 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Nobody can claim that the history of the transistor and related technology has become obsolete in the ten years since the book was published. Oh, no, the transistor and its offspring are even more integrated into the world, and humans are even more dependent than ever. In the meantime, however, the giant figures of the genesis of the transistor and the integrated circuit continue to recede into history. They haven't stuck in peoples' minds, as have the gang of physicists from the early 20th century (Einstein, Bohr, etc.). In fact, Einstein and the others are still compelling enough that they get another telling here, building the knowledge base needed by the solid-state team in the 1940s.

Thus, "Crystal Fire" is a valuable account of a critical event in science and engineering history that should be of interest to many people who have never come near a vacuum tube or a discrete transistor, or have only vaguely heard of the "transistor radio" that made Sony.

The authors emphasize the three Nobel winners and how events led to their working together at Bell Labs, surrounded by an exceptional collection of talent. From there, the story crisply describes the false starts and path to Bardeen and Brattain's invention, and Shockley's subsequent development of the junction transistor. Plenty of credit is given to the others who contributed on the chemistry and engineering sides, for example, not to mention the wise leadership of Bell itself. The transistor is a truly an excellent example of synergistic discovery and development, which makes for a more attractive story.

The authors showed a good balance between a technical history of no depth and scientific detail that required a specialist. There is no math, and complex phenomena get a nice summary.
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