Jonathan Hoppe

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Let Us Speak of Transistors and Test Data

Being an archivist, it admittedly can be difficult to tell where the real value may lay in a collection. Sometimes, even after arranging and describing a series, or collection, the place where the real value lies only become apparent over time.

When my grandfather passed away several years ago, I was placed in charge of his papers. He worked as an engineer at the Burroughs Corporation and its successors for over 40 years, beginning as a co-op from what was then the Drexel Institute of Technology. The personal papers stayed with us; the majority of his work papers went to the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, which houses the Burroughs Corporation Papers in its archive.

But one piece was left behind: a box of transistors, and some images on film.


Now, my grandfather did his very best to teach me the history of these technologies, introducing me to such figures as William Shockley and Arnold Beckman, but these transistors were a bit different. What he did tell me is that these were the first thing he ever worked with at the company when he was hired after graduation in 1953. Though Burroughs never made transistors itself, it and other defense contractors were eager to work with this new technology developed only in 1947, and so he was tasked with testing them and recording their characteristics.

He did his job well, and the transistor went on to create our modern digital world, in a nutshell. But these early examples were left in their case with some of the test data, and in the 1970s were slated to be disposed of. Seeing them on the trash heap, my grandfather, being of the sentimental sort, plucked them out and stashed them away in his attic.

After his death, I began to delve into these early devices, and found that many are the earliest commercial examples ever produced. Not only that, some of the experimental versions, such as the X-23, made by the Transistor Products Corp., may very well be the only surviving examples thereof.

ImageEven the test data, recorded on film from the screen of an oscilloscope (pointing a camera at the o-scope was the only way to record such ephemeral data at that time) was valuable; nothing like it had ever been saved, outside of technical documentation.

ImageAfter contacting several museums, the consensus seems to be that what I have here now is one of the most rare and precious collections of an important part of the world’s technological heritage. While plans are still being worked out on just what to do with it, I am pleased that my grandfather’s most enduring legacy may be to ensure that a very big part of who we are was saved for the future.