Alum gets nod for invention

Feb. 20, 2009

By Jenna Williamson

You know the cell phone that never leaves your sight? It might not exist without the ambition of a Baylor graduate.

That also goes for your laptop, iPod, stereo and virtually any electronic device.

Gordon Teal, a 1927 alumnus, headed the Texas Instruments team that created first silicon transistor.

In May, he will be inducted into the inventor's hall of fame for his contribution. The silicon transistor is "arguably the most significant technological development in the twentieth century," said Dr. Steve Eisenbarth, associate dean of engineering and computer science.

The silicon transistor is the basis for nearly 99 percent of today's electronics, Eisenbarth said.

Teal, a Dallas native, planned to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he decided to stay closer to home. After just three years, he graduated with a degree in chemistry and went on to get his doctorate in physical chemistry from Brown University.

He worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City before Texas Instruments offered him the opportunity to direct the company's Central Research Laboratory in Dallas. In 1954, Teal presented the first commercial silicon transistor during the National Conference on Airborne Electronics.

The speakers before Teal claimed it would take two or three years before a silicon transistor would be realized. Teal went on to present the silicon transistor he had helped to create. "He got up that day and said, 'Oh by the way, I have several of them in my pocket if anyone would like one,'" Eisenbarth said.

Before transistors, computers used vacuum tubes, said Dr. Russell Duren, associate professor of engineering. He said that these first computers filled up an entire room, although "they were not even as powerful as a calculator."

Duren clarified the two basic roles of a transistor.

"It can turn signals on or off or it can boost signals," he said. Turning signals on and off is how digital electronics are made, and boosting signals is how audio signals are made.

Teal's legacy at Baylor continues.

"I actually knew Gordon Teal; he came to Baylor and gave a set of seminars," Eisenbarth said. "I still use his stories in my classes. He once told us that as a graduate student, instead of reading a book about the primary elements, he would look at germanium, which had no known applications."

Teal's fascination with germanium fueled both his research and his future.

"I found its complete uselessness a challenge," Teal said during a 1980 speech at the American Academy of Achievement. "My intense curiosity about it and its sister element silicon, two elements which have since become the basis of the transistor industry, influenced my decisions and shaped my professional destiny much more and over a much longer period than I would have guessed at the time," he said.

After continued success with Texas Instruments, Teal retired in 1972.

He received the IEEE Medal of Honor and was a member of the National Academy of Engineering before he died in 2003. The Baylor Alumni Association awarded Teal and Earl C. Hankamer the first Distinguished Alumni Awards in 1965. Today, Baylor's physics department offers a Gordon K. Teal scholarship in his honor.