(p. A11) One evening in 1955, Morris Tanenbaum’s wife was playing bridge with friends. Dr. Tanenbaum, a chemist who worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories, the research arm of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., saw a chance to dash back to work to test his latest ideas about how to make better semiconductor devices out of silicon.
He tried a new way of connecting an aluminum wire to a silicon chip. He was thrilled when it worked, providing a way to make highly efficient transistors and other electronic devices, an essential technology for the Information Age.
“I don’t think I needed a car to get home that evening,” he said later in an oral history recorded by the IEEE History Center. “I was flying high.”
Dr. Tanenbaum’s pioneering work in the mid-1950s demonstrated that silicon was a better semiconductor material for transistors than germanium, the early favorite. He earned seven patents.
He later served as a senior executive of AT&T and helped manage the breakup of the phone monopoly mandated by the 1982 settlement of a Justice Department antitrust suit. At the signing of the consent decree, Dr. Tanenbaum cried gently, according to “The Deal of the Century,” a history of the breakup by Steve Coll.
What pained him most was the fate of Bell Laboratories, which had invented the transistor in 1947 and allowed him, as a young Ph.D. chemist in the early 1950s, to pursue basic research even if it didn’t promise near-term financial rewards. . . .
“Bell Laboratories, the world’s premier industrial laboratory, was destroyed, a major national and global tragedy,” he wrote later in an unpublished memoir written for his family.
. . .
Hired by Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. in 1952, he was told to look around for a research project that interested him. Researchers were allowed to pursue nearly any project “potentially related to some Bell System problem or future opportunity,” he wrote later. “What more could a young person expect?”
He zeroed in on studies of potential semiconducting materials. The first transistors were made from germanium, but that material was expensive. Silicon is abundant and thus cheaper. It also helps prevent overheating of circuits. Early efforts to use silicon for electronic devices hadn’t worked well, though. That was a challenge for Dr. Tanenbaum and his colleagues, including Ernie Buehler.
They weren’t alone in finding ways to use silicon. Gordon Teal was doing similar work at Texas Instruments Inc. in the mid-1950s. “From that moment forward, the world was focused on silicon,” Dr. Tanenbaum wrote.
Though AT&T made early breakthroughs, other companies, including Intel Corp. and Texas Instruments, charged ahead with better and faster microchips that transformed the world. AT&T was busy trying to defend its telephone monopoly. On the silicon front, Dr. Tanenbaum said, “we kind of dropped the ball.”
For the full obituary, see:
James R. Hagerty. “Chemist Helped Put Silicon in Microchips.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 04, 2023): A11.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 3, 2023, and has the title “Morris Tanenbaum, Who Helped Put Silicon in Microchips, Dies at 94.” The fourth paragraph quoted above appears in the online, but not the print, version.)
The book by Col mentioned above is:
Coll, Steve. The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T. New York: Atheneum Books, 1986.