The first transistor was about half an inch high. That’s mammoth by today’s standards, when 7 million transistors can fit on a single computer chip. It was nevertheless an amazing piece of technology. It was built by Walter Brattain.
Before Brattain started, John Bardeen told him that they would need two metal contacts within .002 inches of each other — about the thickness of a sheet of paper. But the finest wires then were almost three times that width and couldn’t provide the kind of precision they needed. Instead of bothering with tiny wires, Brattain attached a single strip of gold foil over the point of a plastic triangle. With a razor blade, he sliced through the gold right at the tip of the triangle. Voila: two gold contacts just a hair-width apart.
The whole triangle was then held over a crystal of germanium on a spring, so that the contacts lightly touched the surface. The germanium itself sat on a metal plate attached to a voltage source. This contraption was the very first semiconductor amplifier, because when a bit of current came through one of the gold contacts, another even stronger current came out the other contact.
Here’s why it worked: Germanium is a semiconductor and, if properly treated, can either let lots of current through or let none through. This germanium had an excess of electrons, but when an electric signal traveled in through the gold foil, it injected holes (the opposite of electrons) into the surface. This created a thin layer along the top of the germanium with too few electrons.
This device was made using paper clips and razor blades, and was first used in an audio amplifier to present to Bell executives.