December 16 is the 75th anniversary of the transistor, and we are all implicitly celebrating it by being unable to live without it.
“A transistor is a semiconductor device used to amplify or switch electrical signals and power. The transistor is one of the basic building blocks of modern electronics,” says Wikipedia to begin its thorough explanation. You don’t need me to repeat its well-documented history and extraordinary impact – it’s on lists alongside the wheel, electricity, and the horse collar (giddyap) But if you’re looking for some well-produced color, I point you to this new Marketplace podcast.
So rather than looking back this anniversary, let’s look forward and create the kind of circumstances where the next thing as important as the transistor can be born. Keep these six principles front and center:
#1: Beware the unintended consequences of breaking up big companies.
The transistor sprang from the loins of Bell Labs, which was founded in 1925, with its ownership divided between Western Electric and AT&T; Western Electric was wholly-owned by AT&T and was its hardware supplier.
This end-to-end monopoly, which Elizabeth Warren is probably still seething about, made the massive investment in Bell Labs possible. Consider the scope of it: back in 1925 it had 3,600 engineers, scientists and support staff; it occupied 400,000 square feet, and its new building’s footprint occupied about a quarter of a New York City West Village block. (Since 1970 it has been Westbeth, the artists’ housing project.)
A monopoly in effect made it possible for you, today, to check your iPhone and read endlessly about their corrosive impacts on society.
Economists are in continual hot debate about the relationship of monopoles to innovation; Danny Quah, a professor at the London School of Economics, notes that “economists hold opposing views on this, and there’s nothing particularly unconventional, either, about viewing monopoly to be conducive to innovation.”
And the truth is, post AT&T breakup, what innovations did the “baby bells” come up with? In 2021, Verizon was #60 on the list of companies granted the most patents. Its portfolio is, in the company’s words, “designed for applications like video on demand; speech recognition; technology to make the Internet safer; and managing voice, data and video traffic on communications networks.”
All of those leverage the original transistor, with nary a transformation in sight.
We don’t have monopolies the likes of AT&T more, but we do have enormous consolidations of market share and hence cash-flow generation. Google owns more than 86 percent of the search industry, creating a de facto monopoly, which is why regulators and politicians in numerous countries are salivating over a limited form of break-up.
But that would come with risk. The behemoths have and are investing billions in basic science and transistor-like moonshots. This basic science must be funded, and the for-profit sector must play a central role, along with the rest of the ecosystem. That’s why I am excited that the leading investors in one of our most promising technologies, quantum computing, are a healthy farrago of diversity; Harvard, Google, Max Planck Society, NIST (The National Institute of Standards and Technology) and, worryingly, the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
As we consider where the funding for the future of technology, we must not forget Bell Labs’ origin story. Money to burn, spent wisely, is essential.
#2. The Super-Rich Should Be More Than Philanthropists
Many who vaguely know the name “Venrock” – the OG of venture firms, which backed Intel (and Apple) – don’t realize that it is a portmanteau word, constructed from the words “venture and “Rockefeller.”
Laurance Rockefeller, joined by his four brothers and sister Abby, started the firm in 1969 to coalesce their family’s investing, which began in the late 1930s.
As Ethan Batraski – a partner in Venrock today – called this back in a post he wrote about their investment in quantum computing (more about that later), “In 1969, Venrock was one of the first investors in a crazy, misfit group of inventors building a company to reinvent ‘computers’. They named it Intel and what ensued kicked off the most innovative period in modern history.”
While the Rockefellers gave vast amounts to charity – Rockefeller University, the Rockefeller Foundation, the march of prefix generosity is lengthy – they also invested in capitalism’s ability to drive innovation that would benefit society.
What we’re seeing from today’s Rockefellers is a focus on non-profit giving as the most moral path for the super-rich. Buffet’s now-famous “Giving Pledge”–promising to donate 99 percent of his wealth to charity – with its semantically religious syntax – includes Bill and Melinda Gates (who remain married to its principles), Elon Musk, and the late Paul Allen.
That’s great, but. And the but is that the history of the transistor – from Bell Labs to Fairchild to Intel – makes an impregnable argument for a strategic allocation between capitalism–which creates the wealth–and philanthropy, which nobly but inexorably draws it down.
#3. The Power of Coming from Somewhere Else
Picking up and leaving is a physical catalyst for freeing your mind.
Of the “traitorous eight”, only 6 were California locals. They were the rebellious and innovative engineers who banded together and left the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (Shockley was an inventor of the transistor) to start Fairchild Semiconductor, which in turn spawned Intel and gave semiconductors their future. The others were domestic immigrants; as opposed to the international ones who have brought so much diversity of backgrounds and unity of imagination to the ecosystem in the years that followed.
“[continuing] to be a key to Silicon Valley success [are] immigrants who are new to the country coming now. And back then, it was immigrants who were new to this specific part of the country.”
Joan Didion went a level deeper, with her view of the California personality archetype, which aligns with the start-up entrepreneur as the Dopamine Desperate Class: “They who came to California were not the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless, and the daring. They were different even from those who settled in other western states. They didn’t come west for homes and security, but for adventure and money.”
If we are going to continue to innovate, we must inspire and enable those who want to leave everything to do something great. That means changing Federal policy –fix the H-1B mess so newly-laid-off workers can stay here and again add their passion when the current tech winter turns to spring.
#4. Clone-fornia, Here We Come
No doubt there was something special in the Silicon Valley brew–a well-documented model for ferment which included universities; funding and lending access; mentors and advisors; service providers; co-working spaces (and comfy garages) and more.
There is an entire business subculture to help cities benefit from the innumerable and ever-widening follow-on effects of the transistor and turn themselves into innovation hubs – with advice coming from everywhere: the World Bank, Accenture, Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Everyone wants in; here’s an entertaining list which includes my favorite, the culturally-appropriate “Measurement Valley” in Germany.
The processing power we have now – Moore’s Law continues its mathematical magic – both lowers the barrier to innovation and collapses distance. If we want to continue to pioneer, we need to nurture both the power of density – what’s called the “coffee house effect’ – and the work-from-anywhere, post-pandemic model of cocooned remoteness.
I doubt that the transistor would ever have been created without the hothouse of Bell Labs, and the sparky collision of talent and disciplines that it helped facilitate,. So let’s not let the distancing it now makes possible de-limit its successive breakthroughs.
#5. We Need Government
In doing some research for this piece I discovered that the genesis of Fairchild Semiconductor was Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation, whose innovations eventually became the official cameras of the U.S. Army and Navy.
So if we follow the innovation thread, the government helped create the company that took in the traitorous eight, and in turn led to Intel and the commercialization of the transistor, whose birthday we celebrate today.
There’s much more to this, which we will save for another day; some of it is laid out here, in “The Intertwined History of DARPA and Moore’s Law.” Related: Fast Company writes that “NASA Gave Birth to Modern Computing and Gets No Credit For It. Whether or not the government belongs in the basic science business, which is still debated, is not really a question: It does. That does mean that failure is guaranteed in many cases, so we will have to withstand the handwaving of members of Congress who cherry pick what sometimes seems to be almost comically wasteful spending. But in fact, it is all part of a grand if inchoate master plan of progress.
#6. Cherish the “Adjacent Possible.”
I was introduced to this concept by Stephen Johnson, who wrote about it in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From.” He credits the complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman for the idea.
It describes how the transistor and in the integrated circuit and everything that followed was made possible by the evolving nature of the possible, which can only happen when new rules are created by an invention.
He writes “Think of… a chessboard halfway through a game: there are a finite set of moves possible at that moment… given the rules, and a much larger set that can’t be made. The set of moves that you can make define the adjacent possible at that moment. In terms of technology, there’s simply no way to invent a microwave oven in 1650, however smart you might be. But in the middle of the 20th century, the idea of a microwave oven became imaginable, became part of the adjacent possible.”
Seventy-five years ago, unimaginable adjacent possibles were created. One of them, ChatGPT, was launched last week. Already its possibilities are frying our own personal neural networks.
So happy birthday, dear transistor. You’ve had trillions of children, and if we don’t mess things up, we’ll hopefully see your like again.