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Herbert F. Mataré

An Inventor of the Transistor Has His Moment

JOHN MARKOFF / NY Times 24feb03

Fifty-five years later, Herbert F. Mataré may finally get his due.

It was researchers at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., who won the fame and the Nobel Prizes for inventing the transistor in 1948. But Dr. Mataré was one of a pair of German physicists who independently came up with the same device two months later at a Westinghouse Laboratory in Paris.

Herbert F. Mataré was one of two German scientists who developed the transistor in Paris, just months after a Bell Labs team did in America.

Herbert F. Mataré was one of two German scientists who
developed the transistor in Paris, just months after a
Bell Labs team did in America.

The role played by Dr. Mataré, now age 90, and his late research partner, Heinrich Welker, at the dawn of the information age has gone virtually unnoticed in this country. Later this year, though, a Belgian historian, Armand Van Dormael, who has recently rediscovered their research from the 1940's, hopes to publish a new history, "The Silicon Revolution."

Mr. Van Dormael said that he hopes the book will lead to a reassessment of the German scientists' contribution to the early development of computing and information technology.

"Mataré's and Heinrich Welker's work is really the climax of three decades of theoretical and practical research in Europe," Mr. Van Dormael said in an interview. "I think he should have the proper credit."

Dr. Mataré, who immigrated to this country in the early 1950's and now lives in Malibu, Calif., said recently that he had long honored the significance of the Bell Labs breakthrough, which he learned about from news reports when the American lab announced its achievement — news that reached him many months after he and Mr. Welker had developed their own version, which the French called the transistron.

"I don't want to take anything away from Bell Labs," he said. "I was very amazed by their work." The Bells Labs transistor Nobel laureates — John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain and William B. Shockley, all now dead — were brilliant, Dr. Mataré acknowledged.

And although he admits his disappointment a few years ago, when his early contribution to the field went unmentioned as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers observed the 50th anniversary of the transistor with a special publication, Dr. Mataré said that he does not spend much time pondering what might have been.

For one thing, he is too busy. Dr. Mataré continues to do groundbreaking work in the field of semiconductors, exploring the potential of exotic materials for solar energy applications.

No matter who is remembered for inventing it, the transistor's impact has been unforgettable.

A transistor is a device that can both amplify an electrical signal and effectively switch it on or off. Before the invention of the transistor, such functions were handled by bulky and unreliable vacuum tubes.

The transistor opened the modern information age by dramatically shrinking the size and cost of electronic switches and making possible the modern digital computer. Today, the most advanced computer memory chips contain more than a billion transistors.

Back in 1948, while the Bell Labs inventors were attracting publicity in the United States, it was the Paris work of Dr. Mataré and his colleague that was celebrated in the French press. "The breakthrough was hailed by the French government as the `brillante réalisation de la recherche française,' " according to a draft of Mr. Van Dormael's book manuscript.

Bell Labs also became aware of the Mataré-Welker work and grew concerned that it might impede its efforts to obtain a patent on the transistor, according to Michael Riordan, a physicist and author of "Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age."

"There were ongoing worries about the Paris group at Bell Labs," Mr. Riordan said in an interview.

Dr. Mataré recalls that in 1950 one of the Bell Labs team, Dr. Shockley, visited his Paris lab, where he was able to demonstrate for the American an application of the technology by making a telephone call in which transistorized repeaters along the network carried the voice signal to Algiers.

Several years later, however, when the French decided to invest in nuclear power rather than modernizing the country's telephone system, Westinghouse concluded that there was no market for the transistor and closed the Paris lab. Dr. Mataré returned to Germany in 1952 and founded a transistor firm, Intermetall, which was financed in part by a New York company, New England Industries, which wanted a manufacturing presence in Germany.

The next year, Intermetall exhibited a working prototype of a transistor radio, with earphones, at a trade fair in Düsseldorf.

"It was received very well," Dr. Mataré recalled. "People were amazed by its size."

Mr. Van Dormael, the author, noted that Intermetall's prototype proceeded the first American transistor radio by more than a year and was two years ahead of the Sony TR1, which helped ignite the Japanese consumer electronics industry.

But once again, the commercial winds were blowing against Dr. Mataré. After New England Industries cut research funding for Intermetall in 1953, he decided to move to America, working initially as a scientist for the Army Signal Corps and then the Sylvania research laboratories in Bayside, Queens.

Dr. Mataré continued to do research on transistor and materials physics in New Jersey. He became head of the Bendix physics department in Southfield, Mich., and later moved to California and worked as a scientific advisor to Rockwell International before starting his own consulting business in semiconductor applications during the 1970's.

In the history of research breakthroughs, near misses like Dr. Mataré's experience with the transistor are common, and the technology might have played out quite differently if not for the onset of World War II, said Henry Lowood, the curator for the history of science and technology collections at the Stanford University Library.

"It shouldn't be surprising they were close," Mr. Lowood said. "There were other technology near misses in Germany that were affected by the war."

Dr. Mataré, who grew up in Aachen, Germany, and built his first crystal radio set at age 11 in 1924, studied as an undergraduate at the University of Geneva and received his doctorate in electrical engineering from the Technical University, Berlin, and his doctorate in physics from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

A precursor to this transistor work began in 1939, he said, when he started conducting research in radar technology at a Telefunken plant in Berlin. During the war, his laboratory was moved to Silesia at the onset of the bombing raids on Berlin, and he pursued basic research aimed at developing more sensitive radar receivers.

Dr. Mataré said that despite the military orientation of his work during the war, his opposition to the methods of the Gestapo were sufficiently well known that he was interrogated as a consequence. In an academic paper he wrote several years ago recounting that period, he recalled, "I was saved merely by the fact that I worked in radar."

Eventually, as the Russian army rapidly advanced on Silesia, Dr. Mataré's research group was forced to flee back to Berlin, leaving all of its laboratory equipment and papers behind.

Toward the end of the war, before the United States Army closed all German research labs, Dr. Mataré and Mr. Welker had seized on the substance germanium as a potentially better material than silicon with which to pursue the amplification. The Bell Labs team had reached a similar conclusion about germanium, although it proved to be temperamental enough that silicon soon emerged as the preferred medium.

Today Dr. Mataré lives in a condominium near the ocean in Malibu, while he awaits completion of a new home designed by his son, Vitus, who is both a physicist and an architect.

Dr. Mataré is currently a consultant for Pyron Inc., a solar energy company based in La Jolla, Calif. Pyron, he said, is pursuing an approach to solar energy based on exotic semiconducting materials like gallium indium phosphide and gallium indium arsenide. If technical problems can be solved, these materials could yield energy efficiencies as high as 40 percent, compared with only 10 to 11 percent yields from today's silicon-based solar cells.

Such materials are already used in the solar arrays that power communications satellites and other spacecraft, and Dr. Mataré said that he believed they will ultimately have consumer applications.

Pyron is now working on a system that would use the electricity generated by solar cells to separate hydrogen, which could then be used as a power source for fuel cells, he said.

As he plumbs the potential of 21st-century energy sources, Dr. Mataré does occasionally and privately admit disappointment about the way things played out with his mid-20th-century breakthrough. In 1998, he tried to tell his version of the story with a paper, "The Lesser Known History of the Crystal Amplifier," which he submitted for a special issue of "Proceedings of the I.E.E.E." that commemorated the birth of the transistor. The editor of the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, he said, turned it down.

"The rejection of my paper in this manner, left me with the impression that the dominant organization for this issue, namely Bell Labs, did not like a distraction from their unique story of a miraculous invention," he wrote in recent letter to an historian, Frederick Seitz. (Dr. Mataré shared a copy of the letter, after being asked about the I.E.E.E. commemoration.)

A spokesman for Lucent Bell Laboratories, as it is now known, said the company had no information about the parallel effort of the German researchers.

Dr. Mataré declined to discuss the I.E.E.E. incident further, preferring to focus on the larger significance of the events of 1948.

"It was really the dawn of the era of material sciences," he said. "Both at our group and at Bell Labs we were going down into the material and changing its properties in order to change its behavior. I've lived to see the entire world transformed as a result."

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