Silicon Man

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Gordon Teal, who died January 7 at a retirement center in Dallas, is credited with two scientific breakthroughs that helped launch the modern electronics era. First, he figured out how to grow pure germanium crystals, an advance that greatly improved the performance of a recent but impractical invention called a transistor. He then created the first working transistor made of silicon, which further improved the quality of the device and, more importantly, made it inexpensive enough for mass production. Teal was ninety-five when he died.

Teal began to study germanium in the Brown lab of Professor Charles Kraus. Drawn to its apparent uselessness, Teal maintained an interest in the metal after joining Bell Labs in 1930. Shortly after Bell scientist William Shockley invented the transistor in 1947, Teal set about trying to improve it. “I reasoned,” he once wrote, “that removing the crystal boundaries and other undesirable defects from germanium probably would be as important to the transistor as removing the last traces of gases from the vacuum tube.” Though Shockley and the Bell management thought this might be a waste of time, Teal persisted. The creation of pure germanium crystals is now considered one of the most important contributions of semiconductor science.

A native Texan, Teal in 1953 joined Texas Instruments, where he founded and led the research laboratories. In 1954 his team developed the first commercial silicon transistor. According to an article on the PBS Web site, Teal announced the breakthrough at a conference of the Institute of Radio Engineers after he’d heard speaker after speaker complain that germanium transistors tended to fail at high temperatures and that a silicon replacement was years away. Teal began his talk by pulling three small objects from his pocket. “Contrary to what my colleagues have told you about the bleak prospects for silicon transistors,” he said, “I happen to have a few of them here in my pocket.” The breakthrough was especially useful to the military. Thanks to Teal, Texas Instruments dominated the large military market for many years.

Teal served for two years as director of the Institute for Materials Research at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. He received many awards, including the Medal of Honor from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. His work resulted in more than forty-five patents. He was also named Inventor of the Year by the Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Research Institute of the George Washington University. Brown awarded him an honorary degree in 1969, and in 2000 he was one of the BAM 100.

Teal is survived by his wife, Lyda; two sons; a brother; and four grandchildren. His family can be reached in care of Walnut Place Retirement Community, 5515 Glen Lakes Dr., Dallas 75231.

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May / June 2003