The Role of the Transistor in Amateur Radio


The invention of the transistor in 1947 marked a turning point in the history of electronics. This tiny semiconductor device, capable of amplifying and switching electronic signals, revolutionized the world of electronics, paving the way for smaller, more efficient, and more reliable equipment. In the realm of amateur radio, the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors brought about a new era of portable, energy-efficient, and feature-rich transceivers and receivers. This article will explore the invention of the transistor, its basic operation, and how it transformed the landscape of amateur radio.

The Invention and Basics of the Transistor

The transistor was invented in 1947 by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley at Bell Labs. The groundwork for this invention was laid by earlier research into semiconductors and the discovery of the point-contact transistor. The team’s work on understanding the behavior of electrons in semiconductors, particularly germanium, led to the creation of the first practical transistor, known as the bipolar junction transistor (BJT).

A transistor is essentially a three-terminal device consisting of a semiconductor material, usually silicon or germanium, with three regions: the emitter, base, and collector. By applying a small current to the base, the transistor can control a much larger current flowing between the emitter and collector. This ability to amplify signals makes transistors the foundation of modern electronics.

Transistors work by exploiting the properties of semiconductors, which can be made to conduct or insulate depending on the presence of an electric field. In a BJT, a small current applied to the base-emitter junction controls the current flowing through the collector-emitter junction. This allows the transistor to act as an amplifier, increasing the strength of a signal, or as a switch, turning the flow of current on or off.

The invention of the transistor was a culmination of years of research into the properties of semiconductors and the behavior of electrons within these materials. In the early 1940s, physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, along with their team leader William Shockley, were working at Bell Labs to investigate the potential of semiconductors as an alternative to vacuum tubes in electronic devices.

Their research focused on understanding the movement and control of electrons in semiconductors, particularly in germanium. Semiconductors are materials that have electrical conductivity between that of conductors (such as metals) and insulators (such as glass). The unique properties of semiconductors arise from their atomic structure and the way electrons behave within them.

In semiconductors, electrons can exist in two distinct energy bands: the valence band and the conduction band. Electrons in the valence band are tightly bound to their atoms and do not contribute to electrical conductivity. However, when an electron gains enough energy, it can move from the valence band to the conduction band, where it becomes mobile and can participate in electrical conduction.

Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley studied how applying an electric field to a semiconductor could influence the movement of electrons between these energy bands. They discovered that by introducing small amounts of impurities (a process called doping) into the semiconductor material, they could create regions with an excess of electrons (n-type) or a deficiency of electrons, also known as holes (p-type).

In 1947, the team made a breakthrough by creating the point-contact transistor, which consisted of two gold contacts placed close together on a germanium surface. By applying a voltage to one of the contacts (the emitter), they could control the flow of electrons to the other contact (the collector), with the germanium surface acting as the base. This arrangement allowed them to amplify and switch electronic signals, demonstrating the potential of semiconductors in electronic devices.

However, the point-contact transistor was difficult to manufacture consistently and had limited practical applications. Shockley, building upon the work of Bardeen and Brattain, developed the bipolar junction transistor (BJT) in 1948. The BJT consisted of three layers of alternating p-type and n-type semiconductor material, with the middle layer (base) controlling the flow of electrons between the outer layers (emitter and collector). This design was more stable, reliable, and easier to manufacture than the point-contact transistor.

The development of the BJT marked the birth of the modern transistor and paved the way for the rapid advancement of electronic devices. By understanding and manipulating the behavior of electrons in semiconductors, Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley created a device that could amplify and switch electronic signals, laying the foundation for the development of smaller, faster, and more efficient electronic devices that have transformed our world.

Transistors vs. Vacuum Tubes

Before the advent of transistors, vacuum tubes were the primary active components in electronic circuits, including amateur radio equipment. Vacuum tubes, also known as thermionic valves, control the flow of electrons in a vacuum using a heated cathode and one or more anodes. While vacuum tubes were crucial in the development of radio technology, they had several limitations that were overcome by transistors.

One of the main differences between transistors and vacuum tubes is their size. Transistors are much smaller than vacuum tubes, allowing for more compact and portable equipment. This size reduction is particularly significant in amateur radio, where portable and mobile operations are common. Transistors also consume far less power than vacuum tubes, as they do not require a heated cathode to function. This leads to more energy-efficient equipment and longer battery life for portable devices.

Transistors are also more durable than vacuum tubes, as they have no fragile glass envelope or delicate filaments. This makes transistorized equipment more resistant to physical shocks and vibrations, which is essential for mobile and portable use. Additionally, transistors generate less heat than vacuum tubes, reducing the need for bulky cooling systems and further contributing to the miniaturization of equipment.

The Transition to Transistorized Amateur Radio Equipment

The introduction of transistors in the 1950s and 1960s led to a gradual transition from vacuum tube-based amateur radio equipment to solid-state designs.

The first commercially available fully transistorized amateur radio transceiver was the Clegg 99’er, introduced in 1961 by Squires-Sanders, Inc., a company founded by amateur radio operator and engineer Dave Clegg, W2LOS. The Clegg 99’er operated on the 6-meter band (50-54 MHz) and featured a fully transistorized design, which was a significant milestone in the history of amateur radio equipment.

The Clegg 99’er utilized 11 transistors and 7 diodes in its circuitry, providing a compact and portable solution for amateur radio enthusiasts. It offered a power output of 1.5 watts and included features such as a built-in speaker, a crystal-controlled transmitter, and a superheterodyne receiver.

As transistor technology improved and became more affordable, manufacturers began releasing a wide range of transistorized amateur radio equipment, from handheld transceivers to high-performance base stations. The reduced size, power consumption, and increased durability of transistorized equipment made it more practical for mobile and portable operations, expanding the possibilities for amateur radio enthusiasts.

Technical Advancements Enabled by Transistors

The adoption of transistors in amateur radio equipment led to several key technical advancements that greatly enhanced the capabilities of radio operators. One such advancement was improved frequency stability. Transistorized oscillators and frequency synthesizers provided more stable and precise frequency control compared to their vacuum tube counterparts, reducing drift and improving the quality of communications.

Transistors also enabled better signal processing techniques, such as the use of solid-state filters and amplifiers. These components allowed for more selective and sensitive receivers, as well as more efficient and linear transmitters. The improved signal-to-noise ratio and reduced distortion resulted in clearer and more reliable communications.

The development of solid-state power amplifiers, made possible by high-power transistors, was another significant advancement. These amplifiers replaced bulky and inefficient vacuum tube-based designs, providing more compact and energy-efficient solutions for high-power transmitters. Solid-state amplifiers also offered improved linearity and reduced harmonics, ensuring cleaner and more compliant signals.

Modern Amateur Radio and the Legacy of the Transistor

Today, virtually all modern amateur radio equipment relies on transistor technology. From handheld transceivers to sophisticated base stations, transistors are at the heart of these devices, enabling a wide range of features and capabilities. The ongoing advancements in transistor technology, such as the development of field-effect transistors (FETs) and MOSFETs, continue to shape the evolution of amateur radio equipment.

One of the most significant developments in modern amateur radio, made possible by transistors, is the rise of software-defined radios (SDRs). SDRs utilize high-speed analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and digital signal processing (DSP) techniques to perform many of the functions traditionally handled by analog components. This allows for greater flexibility, adaptability, and performance in radio communications.

Transistors, at the core of every computer and digital device today, have also played a crucial role in the development of digital modes and protocols in amateur radio. From packet radio to modern digital voice modes like D-STAR and DMR, transistorized equipment has enabled the integration of digital signal processing and data transmission capabilities into amateur radio transceivers, expanding the horizons of what is possible in the hobby.

DIY Projects and Experimentation

For amateur radio enthusiasts interested in hands-on learning and experimentation, transistors offer a wealth of opportunities for DIY projects. Building simple transistor-based circuits, such as low-power transmitters, receivers, or amplifiers, can provide valuable insights into the principles of electronics and radio communication. Some examples of beginner-friendly transistor projects include:

  • Transistor-based Morse code practice oscillator: A simple circuit that generates an audible tone for practicing Morse code.
  • QRP (low-power) transistor transmitter: A compact, low-power transmitter for CW or AM operation on HF bands.
  • Transistor-based audio amplifier: A small audio amplifier for use with receivers or other audio sources.

(I’ll return to this and include some links to projects and instructions later!)

Experimenting with different types of transistors, such as bipolar junction transistors (BJTs), field-effect transistors (FETs), or MOSFETs, can help amateur radio enthusiasts gain a deeper understanding of their characteristics and applications in radio circuits. By exploring the effects of different transistor parameters, such as gain, frequency response, and noise figure, hobbyists can optimize their designs and improve the performance of their homemade equipment.


The invention of the transistor in 1947 marked a transformative moment in the history of electronics and amateur radio. By replacing bulky, inefficient, and fragile vacuum tubes with small, energy-efficient, and durable solid-state devices, transistors revolutionized the design and capabilities of amateur radio equipment.

As amateur radio continues to evolve, new developments in semiconductor technology, such as gallium nitride (GaN) transistors and integrated circuits, promise even greater advancements in the performance, efficiency, and functionality of amateur radio equipment. By understanding the history and principles behind this groundbreaking invention, amateur radio enthusiasts can better appreciate the technology that powers their passion and continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in the hobby.

Talk to Us!

We invite you to share your experiences with transistor-based projects or how the transition to solid-state equipment has impacted your amateur radio journey. Whether you have built your own transistorized gear, experimented with different types of transistors, or simply enjoyed the benefits of modern, transistor-based equipment, we would love to hear your stories in the comments.

Furthermore, we encourage you to explore the world of electronic components and their impact on the development of modern technology, including amateur radio. By learning more about the principles and applications of transistors and other semiconductor devices, you can gain a greater appreciation for the science behind the hobby and open up new avenues for experimentation and innovation.

Further Reading

  1. Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age” by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson – A comprehensive history of the invention of the transistor and its impact on modern technology.
  2. Practical Electronics for Inventors” by Paul Scherz and Simon Monk – A hands-on guide to electronic components and circuits, including detailed explanations of transistors and their applications.
  3. Solid State Design for the Radio Amateur” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI, and Doug DeMaw, W1FB – A classic book on solid-state design principles and techniques for amateur radio enthusiasts.
  4. The Art of Electronics” by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill – A comprehensive textbook on electronic circuit design, with in-depth coverage of transistors and their applications.
  5. Experimental Methods in RF Design” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI, Rick Campbell, KK7B, and Bob Larkin, W7PUA – A practical guide to RF circuit design and experimentation, with a focus on transistor-based circuits for amateur radio.
  6. ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications” – The American Radio Relay League’s comprehensive guide to amateur radio, with extensive coverage of solid-state electronics and transistor-based equipment.
  7. “Transistor Museum” (https://www.transistormuseum.com/) – An online museum dedicated to the history and evolution of transistors, with a wealth of information and resources for enthusiasts.
  8. “Talking Electronics” (https://www.talkingelectronics.com/) – A website offering a wide range of transistor-based projects, tutorials, and resources for electronics hobbyists.
  9. Secrets of RF Circuit Design” by Joseph J. Carr – A comprehensive guide to RF circuit design, with a focus on transistor-based circuits and techniques for amateur radio applications

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