Tools & Technology


On today’s show we explore the chemistry of the electronic devices you use every day.

Episode 7 | January 25, 2008

Episode 7: Electronics by Distillations Podcast

We don’t normally think of computers, radios, and cell phones as products of chemistry, but none of these devices would be possible without specialized chemical manufacturing components and techniques. The integrated circuits at the heart of these tools depend on the unique electrical properties of certain inorganic elements such as silicon, germanium, and gallium. On today’s show we speak with Henry Kressel, author of Competing for the Future: How Digital Innovations Are Changing the World, about the early solid-state transistors that heralded the beginnings of the Digitial Age. We also share some listener feedback. The Element of the Week: Germanium.

Show Clock

00:00  Opening Credits
00:31  Introduction
01:30  Element of the Week: Germanium
03:25  Conversation with Henry Kressel
07:35  Listener feedback
09:55  Quote: William Shockley
10:15  Closing Credits

Resources and References

On the chemical history of electronics: The Electronics Materials program at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy.

On early transistors: Hyungsub Choi, “The Boundaries of Industrial Research: Making Transistors at RCA, 1948–1960,” Technology and Culture 48 (2007): 758–782.

On RCA: The David Sarnoff Library, containing materials related to the life of David Sarnoff, the former president of RCA and the founder of NBC.

On germanium: David C. Brock, “Useless No More: Gordon K. Teal, Germanium, and Single-Crystal Transistors,” Chemical Heritage 24, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 33–35.

On Joseph Priestley and phlogiston: “Joseph Priestley,” from our website.


Special thanks to Anke Timmermann for researching the show.

Our theme music is composed by Dave Kaufman. Additional music was provided from the Podsafe Music Network. The music for the transition out of the Element of the Week is A Rare Breed, by Mellow Rex. The music for the end of library tour and interview is The Reader of 360 Million Books, by Shams. The music for the quotation is Prelude/Books, by Nuru Lain.

This week’s image is of Gregor Reisch’s Margarita philosophica (Freeburn, 1503). Image courtesy of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library at CHF. Photo by Douglas A. Lockard.