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

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9780393041248: Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age (Sloan Technology)

On December 16, 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, physicists at Bell Laboratories, jabbed two electrodes into a sliver of the metalloid geranium. The power flowing from the geranium far exceeded what went in; in that moment the transistor was invented and the Information Age was born. No other devices have been as crucial to modern life as the transistor and the microchip it spawned. This is the story of the science and personalities that made these inventions possible. William Shockley, Bell Labs' team leader and co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with Brattain and Bardeen for the discovery, grew obsessed with the transistor and went on to become the father of Silicon Valley. The process of invention - including the competition and economic aspirations involved - all part of the greatest technological explosion in history is surveyed here.

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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

About the Author:

Michael Riordan has written several popular books on science and technology. He lives in Santa Cruz, California. Lillian Hoddeson teaches at the University of Illinois and lives in Urbana.

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