Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jerry and the ‘miracle transistor’

For his experiments on the brains of various creatures, Jerry used his own unique design of ultra-high impedance voltage probes so a to subject said creatures to absolutely negligible currents. While he was describing some of these experiments to me – we saw him and Maggie often – he happened to mention that the critical component of his simple circuitry was a transistor from Transitron, my then employer.

Of the two genius friends of mine at that time – Jerry, of course, was one – the other was the late Nick deWolfe, indubitably the most brilliant semiconductor device guy on the planet. (On leaving Transitron, a story that deserves blogging, he and (non-techie) Alex d’Arbelof, founded Teradyne, a company alive and thriving still.)

When I told Nick that a friend of mine, Jerry Lettvin of MIT, was using Transitron transistors to make probes with 10-to-the-God-only-knows-what-power ohms impedance, Nick proclaimed this feat impossible – not just improbable, mark you – to achieve with our then actually quite crummy transistors. So off I went back to Jerry and told him Nick’s reaction. Jerry’s rebuttal was quite tangible: he demonstrated his probes and showed the data validating the impedance values thereof.

At this point, I’d had enough of acting as go-between, and requested that these two geniuses (genii?) meet, probes and all. They did, at a meeting from which Nick emerged chastened and baffled. “My God” said he: “that guy’s a genius”. But I knew that….

-- Ed Mlavsky

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