April 1958 Radio-Electronics
of Contents]These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the Radio & Television
News magazine. Here is a list of the Radio-Electronics
articles I have already posted. All copyrights
(if any) are hereby acknowledged.
Ooooh, I should have posted this story about 23 days ago, but better
late than never. I meant to, but forgot. The story documents development
of the "transistom" device back in the 1958 timeframe. Keep in mind
that it was just a decade earlier that Mssrs. Bardeen, Brattain, and
Shockley introduced the transistor amplifier to the world. The transistom
was basically a 3-terminal transistor with two additional leads for
a revolutionary power source built from radioisotopes of magnesium and
manganese. In the day, school kids, including me, were handed blobs
of liquid mercury to inspect and pass around in class, demonstrating
how relatively ignorant we were about things we now consider to be extreme
health hazards. Accordingly, encapsulating radioactive material in consumer
devices was not a concern. The complete absence of transistoms in the
marketplace today speaks volumes about its success.
See all available
vintage Radio-Electronics articles.
This remarkable discovery foreshadows advances in two areas of the
semiconductor field - diodes and transistors - and makes greater miniaturization
possible while increasing transistor sensitivity. A radio battery with
a life of 50 years is possible
Mohammed Ulysses Fips, IRE*
Fips, you engineers are in the stone age," scowled the Big Boss,
savagely biting his 7-inch Havana. "The idea of dry-cell- or house-current-powered
receivers is not only preposterous, it's insane. Prehistoric, that's
what it is! You yak all day long about your glorious science, my accomplished
yaketeer - now come down to earth and compose. I'll give you 90 days
to produce a receiver that needs no dry cells, no outside current -
The door banged shut with final explosive emphasis and I knew that the
Chief meant business. Strangely enough, for once I agreed with the antediluvian
coot and found myself even elated with the difficult assignment. I immediately
knew I could produce. Such is the exuberance of youth! Instanter, within
minutes of Bignose's talk, I was deeply enmeshed in the problem.
A flashlight bulb is connected to the Transistom's atomic battery
to demonstrate its power. The battery can keep the lamp lit
for 50 years.
I soon hit upon the solution. Radio-activity was the answer! I took
out my dusty old handbook on Primary and Secondary Batteries and soon
found that in Volta's and later physicists' potentials-of-the-metal
series, magnesium and manganese have respective voltages of +1.628 for
Mg and +1.239 for Mn, or a theoretical. total of 2.867 volts.†
If, I reasoned, I made these two metals radioactive and used them
as an atomic battery, I should get at least 2 1/2 volts per element.
I accordingly secured a small quantity of manganese and magnesium and
took them to the neighboring atomic research plant on Long Island, whose
director I knew. He put the metal bits into the cyclotron and bombarded
them atomically for a week.
Here I should call attention to the fact that my first experiments
had quickly shown that pure metals alone would not work as an atomic
battery. I had to use a magnesium as well as a manganese alloy of certain
proportions, which for patent reasons I cannot divulge now. I can state,
however, that the alloyed metals used were much heavier in each case
than manganese (atomic weight 54.94) and magnesium (atomic weight 24.32).
After the samples were "cooked" atomically, I called for them. The
tiny pieces had been placed in a thick lead box, although the director
assured me that the quantity of the now radioactive metal was sufficiently
small that all the pieces together were not more dangerous than a dozen
radium-luminous wrist watch dials.
I must also report that before I took the manganese and magnesium
pieces to the cyclotron I had welded the thin 1/8-inch metal squares
together. This was easy because they were almost paper-thin. The final
atomic battery thus consists of a 1/8 x 1/4-inch magnesium-manganese
radioactive strip (Fig. 1). The finished battery gives a voltage of
just over 2 1/2 under a light load. As the load increases, the voltage
of course drops as in an ordinary dry cell. You might wonder how the
atomic battery works with its two main elements welded together. The
answer is no different than in a dry cell in which the zinc can and
the depolarizer (manganese dioxide) are intimately connected by the
electrolyte (sal ammoniac and zinc chloride), which is highly conductive.
Or take a storage battery in which the positive and negative plates
are immersed in a bath of dilute sulfuric acid, which you'd think would
short-circuit the plates.
Naturally, in an atomic battery, the energy is not chemical as in
a dry cell nor "stored" electricity as in a storage battery. The energy
in an atomic battery comes from the gamma radiation, which is then converted
electronically in the two metals. A current then flows from the manganese
to the magnesium.
What is the useful life of an atomic battery? My calculations show
that a conservative estimate is 40 to 50 years. With future refinements,
the life expectancy should be much greater.
My next step, naturally, was to hook up my atomic cell to a transistor,
thus making it possible to construct a small radio in which the batteries
would take up practically no extra room. Curiously, too, I soon found
out that the atomic radiation had a decided influence on a transistor;
it enhanced its sensitivity surprisingly.
The final and successful version is shown diagrammatically in Fig.
2. Here we have a standard three-lead transistor to which the atomic
battery has been joined. For a number of technical reasons, the battery
elements should not physically contact the transistor elements, hence
I use a thin ceramic separating film. (Other suitable insulators can
be used.) ††
Fig. 1 - The battery consists of two small squares of radioactive
metals - magnesium and manganese - welded together.
Fig. 2 - When the battery is fastened to a transistor, forming
a composite unit, the Transistom is completed.
The transistor battery is now encapsuled, as is standard practice
with all modern transistors. This results in a new electronic device
which I call the Transistom (transistor plus atom). The transistom,
as will be noted, has five leads - three transistor and two battery
leads. These external battery leads can be interconnected as necessary
in various circuits. In a six-transistor set we can even hook all the
batteries up in series, giving us 15 working volts to drive a large
Needless to state, the coming transistom circuitry is endless and
the nuisance of battery replacements will soon be a thing of the past.
Long before the 90-day time limit imposed upon me by the Chief, I
walked into his office unannounced one morning. Out of my vest pocket
I pulled a six-transistor receiver. If it hadn't been for the loudspeaker,
the little set would have fitted into an ordinary matchbox - but the
speaker made it 50% bigger.
I put it through its paces and, if I must say so myself, it worked
- as the French would say - formidable. Bignose, for once, was enchanted
as I opened the tiny lid, showing him the "works."
In the office with the all-highest there were also the science editor
and the electronics editor. All three listened politely and interestedly
to my technical description of my transistom. Then there was a long,
thick silence accompanied by pointed headshaking.
Finally Bignose cleared his throat and snickered, "Fips, my boy,
do you ever read the papers and do you know what goes on nowadays? Did
you know that the word radiation is akin to pestilence all over the
world today? What do you think would happen to us if we printed your
transistom story? A radio set that gives off deadly radiation! Admittedly
you - and we - know that it wouldn't hurt a fly, but what about the
public? What about the Radiation Energy Commission (REC)? What about
the National Health Service? People are hysterical today about any form
of gamma radiation. You know that every kind of X-ray-except in doctors'
hands - is taboo now. And now you want us to publicize a radio set that
gives off gamma rays! Indeed!"
"Frank," this to the science editor, "bring in your Geiger counter!"
Frank returned in a minute with the Geiger and brought the probe
to within a foot of my receiver. Of course it clicked furiously, as
was to be expected - it would have done that with a luminous radium
wristwatch dial, too.
"Look here, Fips," rasped Joe, the electronics editor, "can't you
just visualize the ads of the large set manufacturers screaming 'Buy
a safe NonRadiation battery set that won't endanger your or your family's
"Yes, Fips," piped in Frank, "you must know too that radiation today
is the big political weapon of all our enemies and detractors the world
over. Japan leads all Asia in bellowing at America to stop all forms
of radiation and fallout to safeguard future generations. European scientists
condemn us for the same reason.
"Kruschev, I am positive, would hop on your radiation radio as an
excellent propaganda springboard to denounce our Western decadence and
irresponsibility for foisting more misery and suffering on an already
distressed world, all for the sake of our capitalistic dollar."
"No, Fips," this from the electronics editor, "I know what is in
your mind - you want to encase your chassis in lead to stop all radiation.
That, my boy, is no solution. Aside from the impossible added weight,
think what a picnic the battery set manufacturers would have in their
ads, telling service technicians to stay away from servicing dangerous
radiation sets! Aside from this, shielded or not, your set would still
be taboo - because of its potential radioactive danger. No, you'll have
to start all over. I admit your scheme is brilliant - but with today's
wholly uncalled for radiation hysteria, you must chart a new course."
Whipped and beaten down once more, I shuffled out the hallway. At
the bend on the wall I glanced at the large leaf calendar and sadly
noted the date:
*Institute Radioactive Engineering.
†A recent magnesium-carbon-manganese dry cell actually gives
2 1/4. volts.
††My latest transistoms now use light-gauge magnesium
and manganese wires welded together.
Posted April 24, 2014