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Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (Sloan Technology Series)

4.7 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393318517
ISBN-10: 0393318516
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  • Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (Sloan Technology Series)
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  • The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The microchip at the heart of your computer is a complex device, but its historical origins go back to one crude-looking little gadget made up of a wedge of plastic, a strip of gold foil, a rough-hewn slab of crystallized germanium, some wires, and a bent-up paper clip. Slapped together by two Bell Labs experimenters on December 16, 1947, this invention later came to be known as the transistor, and it is the ancestor of every microchip in operation today.

Crystal Fire tells the story of the creation and development of that gadget, demonstrating that very little about the transistor's invention was as simple it seemed. The device put together on that December day was no idle experiment, but the product of decades of high-level research--and the first major practical application of the esoteric quantum mechanics that had emerged from European particle physics at the beginning of the century.

Just as fascinating as the scientific background, though, is the story of the brains and events behind the invention of the transistor. The collaboration and rivalry of the three men credited with the invention--the brilliant John Bardeen, the likable Walter Brattain, and the appallingly driven William Shockley--hold center stage. However, authors Riordan and Hoddeson make it clear that the unique organizational resources of Bell Labs, the furious course of the war effort, and the random twists and turns of historical accident played equally important roles. The saga makes for a gripping read and a crash course in the dizzying complexity of information-age invention. --Julian Dibbell

Review

The history of the tiny transistor, recalled here with enthusiasm, is a tale of opportunities lost and found, and of the troubled quest of three brilliant minds to leave their mark. -- The Australia, 20 March 1999

Thoroughly accessible to lay readers as well as the techno-savvy.... [A] fine book. -- Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • Series: Sloan Technology Series
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (December 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393318516
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393318517
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #605,604 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jonathan A. Titus on May 6, 2006
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A thoroughly informative and engaging look at the development of semiconductor electronics. A bit of physics background will help you get through some of the discussions of atoms and energy levels, but even if you skim this material, you'll better understand how semiconductor physics came about and how practical products left the lab and became the microprocessor, memory, and other chips that power "appliances" we take for granted. All too often we think of inventions as springing forth in one burts of energy. This book shows the slow and not-always-steady developments that involved more people that you can imaging. I recommend this book highly to engineers and non-engineers alike.
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By A Customer on July 6, 2003
This is an excellent book on the history of the transistor. Not exactly light reading, but still an enjoyable read. As an engineer it is wonderful to learn the history of the one of the most important inventions of recent times. Really a well written book.
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In the '50s I tried to understand transistor theory but just couldn't get it. This book helped me to see the simple fact that text and teachers of the era didn't get it either. Finally, in the '60s at Fairchild R&D I did indeed get it, and a whole lot more. Not all that long before I joined Fairchild, the company had started shipping the world's first commercially available integrated circuits. From those days on up until reading this book there were still a lot of questions gnawing at me, detailed questions not only on the origin of the transistor and learnings associated with it but on how Shockley's name somehow miraculously started appearing with those of Brattain and Bardeen on its invention.

This book, Crystal Fire, answered my questions and a lot of other questions that I should have been asking. But if you read this book, be sure to fill in some of the gaps by searching out on the web a follow-up paper also written by this book's author, Michael Riorden, "The Silicon Dioxide Solution". In this paper the role of Jean Hoerni of the traitorous eight is finally made clear. His name doesn't often come up prominently in discussion of integrated circuit history, but without his invention of the planar process while at Fairchild, Fairchild would more than likely not even be mentioned today in IC history discussion.

So .. Crystal Fire.. Who'd have thought the authors of a book this interesting from a, "people who were involved" perspective, could also explain, so clearly in near layman's terms, solid state physics principles and knowledge progression from the early years on up through invention of the transistor - and beyond. It takes a good degree of topic knowledge to bring the complex to a level that is understandable to those who are not involved in the complex, while at the same time writing a truly good read.
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The legend of Silicon Valley has long lived in the lore of techies everywhere. However, we are into the 4th generation since William Shockley setup camp in Palo Alto--so there are many who may not have heard the tale.

If you can answer the following:

1. Why did William Shockley (late of Bell Labs in New Jersey) choose Palo Alto as the site of his semiconductor venture?
2. What were the names of the traitorous eight?
3. What is the genealogy of spin-off's from Shockley Semiconductor?
4. Why did Bell Labs attorneys insist on omitting Shockley as a co-inventor on the original transistor patents?

Then you probably don't need to read this book. Otherwise, you might find it interesting.
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The authors described the complex interplay of personalities involved in the process of creating the transistor. The inventors (William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain) worked together the following ways:
1. Bardeen was a deep thinker, and seldom spoke. Whenever he did say something, EVERYONE LISTENED.
2. Brattain was a very "hands on" person and he was resourceful about creating experiments that would further develop Bardeen's concepts.
3. Shockley was the visionary, who understood the vast commercial potential for the transistor.

I enjoyed visualizing the juxtaposition of these personalities with those from another book: "The Man Behind the Microchip", by Leslie Berlin. In this case the major personalities were: Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove. Like Shockley, Noyce was a visionary, but they had polar opposite personalities. Shockley took credit for every one else's work whereas Noyce always gave others the full recognition they deserved. Everyone hated Shockley and everyone loved Noyce.

Other books that tell similar stories, for different time frames are:
1. "The Invention That Changed the World", by Robert Buderi
2. "The Idea Factory", by Jon Gertner
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Who invented the transitor? The answer to this question is in the book. What is the transitor? The answer is in the book. Understanding the answer is another, more personal, matter. Why was the transitor invented in the US, when it was? This facinating question is well explored in the book. One may be surprised to see the names of Hitler, Einstein, Salvador Dali and Picasso mentioned in the same breath with the inventors. Which co-inventor of the transistor went on to win a second Noble prize for superconductivity? The book does not play favorites among the three co-inventors but the work of John Bardine on the transistor and superconductivity is reason enough for the biography fan to read this book instead of watching the biography of the "Hamburger Barrons" on TV. The story is not an "easy read." But cheer up, there are great pictures.
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