16 July 2014
A miniature electronic device, comprising a tiny
semiconductor and multiple electrical contacts, used in circuits
as an amplifier, detector, or switch, that revolutionized electronics
in the mid-twentieth century.
The people behind the invention:
William B. Shockley (1910-1989), an American physicist who led
the Bell Laboratories team that produced the first transistors
Akio Morita (1921-1999), a Japanese physicist and engineer who
was the cofounder of the Sony electronics company
Masaru Ibuka (1908-1997), a Japanese electrical engineer and
businessman who cofounded Sony with Morita
The Birth of Sony
In 1952, a Japanese engineer visiting the United States learned
that the Western Electric company was granting licenses to use its
transistor technology. He was aware of the development of this device
and thought that it might have some commercial applications.
Masaru Ibuka told his business partner in Japan about the opportunity,
and they decided to raise the $25,000 required to obtain a license.
The following year, his partner, Akio Morita, traveled to New
York City and concluded negotiations with Western Electric. This
was a turning point in the history of the Sony company and in the
electronics industry, for transistor technology was to open profitable
new fields in home entertainment.
The origins of the Sony corporation were in the ruins of postwar
Japan. The Tokyo Telecommunications Company was incorporated
in 1946 and manufactured a wide range of electrical equipment
based on the existing vacuum tube technology. Morita and Ibuka
were involved in research and development of this technology during
the war and intended to put it to use in the peacetime economy.
In the United States and Europe, electrical engineers who had done
the same sort of research founded companies to build advanced
audio products such as high-performance amplifiers, but Morita
and Ibuka did not have the resources to make such sophisticated
products and concentrated on simple items such as electric water
heaters and small electric motors for record players.
In addition to their experience as electrical engineers, both men
were avid music lovers, as a result of their exposure to Americanbuilt
phonographs and gramophones exported to Japan in the early
twentieth century. They decided to combine their twin interests by
devising innovative audio products and looked to the new field of
magnetic recording as a likely area for exploitation. They had learned
about tape recorders from technical journals and had seen them in
use by the American occupation force.
They developed a reel-to-reel tape recorder and introduced it in
1950. It was a large machine with vacuum tube amplifiers, so heavy
that they transported it by truck. Although it worked well, they had
a hard job selling it. Ibuka went to the United States in 1952 partly
on a fact-finding mission and partly to get some ideas about marketing
the tape recorder to schools and businesses. It was not seen as a
Ibuka and Morita had read about the invention of the transistor
inWestern Electric’s laboratories shortly after the war. John Bardeen
andWalter H. Brattain had discovered that a semiconducting material
could be used to amplify or control electric current. Their point
contact transistor of 1948 was a crude laboratory apparatus that
served as the basis for further research. The project was taken over
byWilliam B. Shockley, who had suggested the theory of the transistor
effect. A new generation of transistors was devised; they were
simpler and more efficient than the original. The junction transistors
were the first to go into production.
Bell Laboratories had begun transistor research becauseWestern
Electric, one of its parent companies along with American Telephone
and Telegraph, was interested in electronic amplification.
This was seen as a means to increase the strength of telephone signals
traveling over long distances, a job carried out by vacuum
tubes. The junction transistor was developed as an amplifier.Western
Electric thought that the hearing aid was the only consumer
product that could be based on it and saw the transistor solely as a
telecommunications technology. The Japanese purchased the license
with only the slightest understanding of the workings of
semiconductors and despite the belief that transistors could not be
used at the high frequencies associated with radio.
The first task of Ibuka and Morita was to develop a highfrequency
transistor. Once this was accomplished, in 1954, a method
had to be found to manufacture it cheaply. Transistors were made
from crystals, which had to be grown and doped with impurities to
form different layers of conductivity. This was not an exact science,
and Sony engineers found that the failure rate for high-frequency
transistors was very high. This increased costs and put the entire
project into doubt, because the adoption of transistors was based on
simplicity, reliability, and low cost.
The introduction of the first Sony transistor radio, the TR-55, in
1955 was the result of basic research combined with extensive industrial
engineering. Morita admitted that its sound was poor, but
because it was the only transistor radio in Japan, it sold well. These
were not cheap products, nor were they particularly compact. The
selling point was that they consumed much less battery power than
the old portable radios.
The TR-55 carried the brand name Sony, a relative of the Soni
magnetic tape made by the company and a name influenced by the
founders’ interest in sound. Morita and Ibuka had already decided
that the future of their company would be in international trade and
wanted its name to be recognized all over the world. In 1957, they
changed the company’s name from Tokyo Telecomunications Engineering
The first product intended for the export market was a small
transistor radio. Ibuka was disappointed at the large size of the TR-
55 because one of the advantages of the transistor over the vacuum
tube was supposed to be smaller size. He saw a miniature radio as a
promising consumer product and gave his engineers the task of designing
one small enough to fit into his shirt pocket.
All elements of the radio had to be reduced in size: amplifier,
transformer, capacitor, and loudspeaker. Like many other Japanese
manufacturers, Sony bought many of the component parts of its
products from small manufacturers, all of which had to be cajoled
into decreasing the size of their parts. Morita and Ibuka stated that
the hardest task in developing this new product was negotiating
with the subcontractors. Finally, the Type 63 pocket transistor radio
the “Transistor Six”—was introduced in 1957.
When the transistor radio was introduced, the market for radios
was considered to be saturated. People had rushed to buy them
when they were introduced in the 1920’s, and by the time of the
Great Depression, the majority of American households had one.
Improvements had been made to the receiver and more attractive
radio/phonograph console sets had been introduced, but these developments
did not add many new customers. The most manufacturers
could hope for was the replacement market with a few sales
as children moved out of their parents’ homes and established new
The pocket radio created a new market. It could be taken anywhere
and used at any time. Its portability was its major asset, and it
became an indispensable part of youth-oriented popular culture of
the 1950’s and 1960’s. It provided an outlet for the crowded airwaves
of commercialAMradio and was the means to bring the new
music of rock and roll to a mass audience.
As soon as Sony introduced the Transistor Six, it began to redesign
it to reduce manufacturing cost. Subsequent transistor radios
were smaller and cheaper. Sony sold them by the millions, and millions
more were made by other companies under brand names such
as “Somy” and “Sonny.” By 1960, more than twelve million transistor
radios had been sold.
The transistor radio was the product that established Sony as an
international audio concern. Morita had resisted the temptation to
make radios for other companies to sell under their names. Exports
of Sony radios increased name recognition and established a bridgehead
in the United States, the biggest market for electronic consumer
products. Morita planned to follow the radio with other transistorized
The television had challenged radio’s position as the mechanical
entertainer in the home. Like the radio, it stood in nearly every
American living room and used the same vacuum tube amplification
unit. The transistorized portable television set did for images
what the transistor radio did for sound. Sony was the first to develop
an all-transistor television, in 1959. At a time when the trend
in television receivers was toward larger screens, Sony produced
extremely small models with eight-inch screens. Ignoring the marketing
experts who said that Americans would never buy such a
product, Sony introduced these models into the United States in
1960 and found that there was a huge demand for them.
As in radio, the number of television stations on the air and
broadcasts for the viewer to choose from grew.Apersonal television
or radio gave the audience more choices. Instead of one machine in
the family room, there were now several around the house. The
transistorization of mechanical entertainers allowed each family
member to choose his or her own entertainment. Sony learned several
important lessons from the success of the transistor radio and
television. The first was that small size and low price could create
new markets for electronic consumer products. The second was that
constant innovation and cost reduction were essential to keep ahead
of the numerous companies that produced cheaper copies of original
In 1962, Sony introduced a tiny television receiver with a fiveinch
screen. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, it produced even smaller models,
until it had a TV set that could sit in the palm of the hand—the
Video Walkman. Sony’s scientists had developed an entirely new
television screen that worked on a new principle and gave better
color resolution; the company was again able to blend the fruits of
basic scientific research with innovative industrial engineering.
The transistorized amplifier unit used in radio and television sets
was applied to other products, including amplifiers for record players
and tape recorders. Japanese manufacturers were slow to take
part in the boom in high-fidelity audio equipment that began in the
United States in the 1950’s. The leading manufacturers of highquality
audio components were small American companies based
on the talents of one engineer, such as Avery Fisher or Henry Koss.
They sold expensive amplifiers and loudspeakers to audiophiles.
The transistor reduced the size, complexity, and price of these components.
The Japanese took the lead devising complete audio units based on transistorized
integrated circuits, thus developing the basic home stereo.
In the 1960’s, companies such as Sony and Matsushita dominated
the market for inexpensive home stereos. These were the basic
radio/phonograph combination, with two detached speakers.
The finely crafted wooden consoles that had been the standard for
the home phonograph were replaced by small plastic boxes. The
Japanese were also quick to exploit the opportunities of the tape cassette.
The Philips compact cassette was enthusiastically adopted by
Japanese manufacturers and incorporated into portable tape recorders.
This was another product with its ancestry in the transistor
radio. As more of them were sold, the price dropped, encouraging
more consumers to buy. The cassette player became as commonplace
in American society in the 1970’s as the transistor radio had
been in the 1960’s.
The transistor took another step in miniaturization in the Sony
Walkman, a personal stereo sound system consisting of a cassette
player and headphones. It was based on the same principles as the
transistor radio and television. Sony again confounded marketing
experts by creating a new market for a personal electronic entertainer.
In the ten years following the introduction of theWalkman in
1979, Sony sold fifty million units worldwide, half of those in the
United States. Millions of imitation products were sold by other
Sony’s acquisition of the Western Electric transistor technology
was a turning point in the fortunes of that company and of Japanese
manufacturers in general. Less than ten years after suffering defeat
in a disastrous war, Japanese industry served notice that it had lost
none of its engineering capabilities and innovative skills. The production
of the transistor radio was a testament to the excellence of
Japanese research and development. Subsequent products proved
that the Japanese had an uncanny sense of the potential market for
consumer products based on transistor technology. The ability to incorporate
solid-state electronics into innovative home entertainment
products allowed Japanese manufacturers to dominate the
world market for electronic consumer products and to eliminate
most of their American competitors.
The little transistor radio was the vanguard of an invasion of new
products unparalleled in economic history. Japanese companies
such as Sony and Panasonic later established themselves at the leading
edge of digital technology, the basis of a new generation of entertainment
products. Instead of Japanese engineers scraping together
the money to buy a license for an American technology, the
great American companies went to Japan to license compact disc
and other digital technologies.
William Shockley’s reputation contains extremes. He helped
invent one of the basic devices supporting modern technological
society, the transistor. He also tried to revive one of the most
infamous social theories, eugenics.
His parents, mining engineer William Hillman Shockley,
and surveyor May Bradford Shockley, were on assignment in
England in 1910 when he was born. The family returned to
Northern California when the younger William was three, and
they schooled him at home until he was eight. He acquired an
early interest in physics from a neighbor who taught at Stanford
University. Shockley pursed that interest at the California Institute
of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
which awarded him a doctorate in 1936.
Shockley went to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories in
the same year. While trying to design a vacuum tube that could
amplify current, it occurred to him that solid state components
might work better than the fragile tubes. He experimented with
the semiconductors germanium and silicon, but the materials
available were too impure for his purpose. World War II interrupted
the experiments, and he worked instead to improve radar
and anti-submarine devices for the military. Back at Bell
Labs in 1945, Shockley teamed with theorist John Bardeen and
experimentalistWalter Brattain. Two years later they succeeded
in making the first amplifier out of semiconductor materials
and called it a transistor (short for transfer resistor). Its effect on
the electronics industry was revolutionary, and the three shared
the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their achievement.
In the mid-1950’s Shockley left Bell Labs to start Shockley
Transistor, then switched to academia in 1963, becoming Stanford
University’s Alexander M. Poniatoff Professor of Engineering
and Applied Science. He grew interested in the relation
between race and intellectual ability. Teaching himself psychology
and genetics, he conceived the theory that Caucasians were
inherently more intelligent than other races because of their genetic
make-up. When he lectured on his brand of eugenics, he
was denounced by the public as a racist and by scientists for
shoddy thinking. Shockley retired in 1975 and died in 1989.
See also :
Cassette recording; Color television; FM radio; Radio;Television;
Further Reading :
Lyons, Nick. The Sony Vision. New York: Crown Publishers, 1976.
Marshall, David V. Akio Morita and Sony. Watford: Exley, 1995.
Morita, Akio, with Edwin M. Reingold, and Mitsuko Shimomura.
Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony. London: HarperCollins,
Reid, T. R. The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and
Launched a Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Riordan, Michael. Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the
Birth of the Information Age. New York: Norton, 1998.
Scott, Otto. The Creative Ordeal: The Story of Raytheon. New York: