Morita Licenses Transistor Technology

Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka licensed transistor technology from Western Electric and used it to develop an entirely new type of commodity, the portable consumer electronic device. Morita and Ibuka’s electronics company would become known a few years later as the Sony Corporation.

Summary of Event

In 1952, a Japanese engineer visiting the United States learned that the Western Electric Company Western Electric Company was granting licenses to use its transistor technology. He was aware of the development of this device and thought that it might have some commercial applications. Masaru Ibuka told his business partner in Japan about the opportunity, and they decided to raise the $25,000 required to obtain a license. The following year, his partner, Akio Morita, traveled to New York City and concluded negotiations with Western Electric. This was a turning point in the history of what would become known as the Sony Corporation and in the electronics industry, for transistor technology was to open profitable new fields in home entertainment. Sony Corporation
Transistors;licensed by Sony
[kw]Morita Licenses Transistor Technology (1953)
[kw]Transistor Technology, Morita Licenses (1953)
Sony Corporation
Transistors;licensed by Sony
[g]Asia;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[g]North America;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[g]United States;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[g]Japan;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[c]Trade and commerce;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[c]Business and labor;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
[c]Science and technology;1953: Morita Licenses Transistor Technology[04010]
Morita, Akio
Ibuka, Masaru
Shockley, William

The origins of the Sony Corporation lay in the ruins of postwar Japan. The Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company was incorporated in 1946 and manufactured a wide range of electrical equipment based on the existing vacuum tube technology. Morita and Ibuka were involved in research and development of this technology during the war and intended to put it to use in the peacetime economy. In the United States and Europe, electrical engineers who had done the same sort of research founded companies to build advanced audio products such as high-performance amplifiers, but Morita and Ibuka did not have the resources to make such sophisticated products and concentrated on simple items such as electric water heaters and small electric motors for record players.

In addition to their experience as electrical engineers, both men were avid music-lovers as a result of their exposure to American-built phonographs and gramophones exported to Japan in the early twentieth century. They decided to combine their twin interests by devising innovative audio products and looked to the new field of magnetic recording as a likely area for exploitation. They had learned about tape recorders from technical journals and had seen them in use by the American occupation force.

Morita and Ibuka developed a reel-to-reel tape recorder and introduced it in 1950. It was a large machine with vacuum tube amplifiers, so heavy that they transported it by truck. Although it worked well, they had a hard job selling it. Ibuka went to the United States in 1952 partly on a fact-finding mission and partly to get some ideas about marketing the tape recorder to schools and businesses. It was not seen as a consumer product.

Ibuka and Morita had read about the invention of the transistor in Western Electric’s laboratories shortly after the war. John Bardeen Bardeen, John and Walter H. Brattain Brattain, Walter H. had discovered that a semiconducting Semiconductors
Conductivity, electrical material could be used to amplify or control electric current. Their point contact transistor of 1948 was a crude laboratory apparatus that served as the basis for further research. The project was taken over by William Shockley, who had suggested the theory of the transistor effect. A new generation of transistors was devised; they were simpler and more efficient than the original. The junction transistors were the first to go into production.

Bell Telephone Laboratories Bell Telephone Laboratories had begun transistor research, because Western Electric, one of its parent companies along with American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), was interested in electronic amplification. This was seen as a means to increase the strength of telephone signals traveling over long distances, a job carried out by vacuum tubes. The junction transistor was developed as an amplifier. Western Electric thought that the hearing aid was the only consumer product that could be based on it and saw the transistor solely as a telecommunications technology. The Japanese purchased the license with only the slightest understanding of the workings of semiconductors and despite the belief that transistors could not be used at the high frequencies associated with radio.

The first task of Ibuka and Morita was to develop a high-frequency transistor. Once this was accomplished, in 1954, a method had to be found to manufacture it cheaply. Transistors were made from crystals, which had to be grown and doped with impurities to form different layers of conductivity. This was not an exact science, and Tokyo Telecommunications engineers found that the failure rate for high-frequency transistors was very high. This increased costs and put the entire project into doubt, because the adoption of transistors was based on simplicity, reliability, and low cost.

The introduction of the first Sony transistor radio Transistor radios , the TR-55 TR-55 radio[TR fifty five] , in 1955 was the result of basic research combined with extensive industrial engineering. Morita admitted that its sound was poor, but because it was the only transistor radio in Japan, it sold well. These were not cheap products, nor were they particularly compact. The selling point was that they consumed much less battery power than the old portable radios.

The TR-55 carried the brand name Sony, a relative of the Soni magnetic tape made by the company and a name influenced by the founders’ interest in sound. Morita and Ibuka had already decided that the future of their company would be in international trade, and they wanted the company’s name to be recognized all over the world. In 1957, they officially changed that name from Tokyo Telecomunications Engineering to Sony.

The first product intended for the export market was a small transistor radio. Ibuka was disappointed at the large size of the TR-55, because one of the advantages of the transistor over the vacuum tube was supposed to be smaller size. He saw a miniature radio as a promising consumer product and gave his engineers the task of designing one small enough to fit into his shirt pocket.

All elements of the radio had to be reduced in size: amplifier, transformer, capacitor, and loudspeaker. Like many other Japanese manufacturers, Sony bought many of the component parts of its products from small manufacturers, all of which had to be cajoled into decreasing the size of their parts. Morita and Ibuka stated that the hardest task in developing this new product was negotiating with the subcontractors. Finally, the Type 63 pocket transistor radio—the “Transistor Six”—was introduced in 1957.


When the transistor radio was introduced, the market for radios was considered to be saturated. People had rushed to buy them when they were introduced in the 1920’s, and by the time of the Great Depression, the majority of American households had one. Improvements had been made to the receiver and more attractive radio/phonograph console sets had been introduced, but these developments did not add many new customers. The most manufacturers could hope for was the replacement market with a few sales as children moved out of their parents’ homes and established new households.

The pocket radio created a new market. It could be taken anywhere and used at any time. Its portability was its major asset, and it became an indispensable part of youth-oriented popular culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It provided an outlet for the crowded airwaves of commercial AM radio and was the means to bring the new music of rock and roll to a mass audience.

As soon as Sony introduced the Transistor Six, it began to redesign it to reduce manufacturing cost. Subsequent transistor radios were smaller and cheaper. Sony sold them by the millions, and millions more were made by other companies under brand names such as “Somy” and “Sonny.” By 1960, more than twelve million transistor radios had been sold.

The transistor radio was the product that established Sony as an international audio concern. Morita had resisted the temptation to make radios for other companies to sell under their names. Exports of Sony radios increased name recognition and established a bridgehead in the United States, the biggest market for electronic consumer products. Morita planned to follow the radio with other transistorized products.

The television had challenged radio’s position as the mechanical entertainer in the home. Like the radio, it stood in nearly every American living room and used the same vacuum tube amplification unit. The transistorized portable television Television;portable televisions set did for images what the transistor radio did for sound. Sony was the first to develop an all-transistor television, in 1959. At a time when the trend in television receivers was toward larger screens, Sony produced extremely small models with eight-inch screens. Ignoring the marketing experts who said that Americans would never buy such a product, Sony introduced these models into the United States in 1960 and found that there was a huge demand for them.

As in radio, the number of television stations on the air and broadcasts for viewers to choose from grew. A personal television or radio gave the audience more choices. Instead of one machine in the family room, there were now several around the house. The transistorization of mechanical entertainers allowed each family member to choose his or her own entertainment. Sony learned several important lessons from the success of the transistor radio and television. The first was that small size and low price could create new markets for electronic consumer products. The second was that constant innovation and cost reduction were essential to keep ahead of the numerous companies that produced cheaper copies of original Sony products.

In 1962, Sony introduced a tiny television receiver with a five-inch screen. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, it produced even smaller models, until it had a TV set that could sit in the palm of the hand—the Video Walkman. Sony’s scientists had developed an entirely new television screen that worked on a new principle and gave better color resolution; the company was again able to blend the fruits of basic scientific research with innovative industrial engineering.

The transistorized amplifier unit used in radio and television sets was applied to other products, including amplifiers for record players and tape recorders. Japanese manufacturers were slow to take part in the boom in high-fidelity audio equipment that began in the United States in the 1950’s. The leading manufacturers of high-quality audio components were small American companies based on the talents of one engineer, such as Avery Fisher or Henry Koss. They sold expensive amplifiers and loudspeakers to audiophiles. The transistor reduced the size, complexity, and price of these components. The Japanese took the lead devising complete audio units based on transistorized integrated circuits, thus developing the basic home stereo.

In the 1960’s, companies such as Sony and Matsushita dominated the market for inexpensive home stereos. These were the basic radio/phonograph combination, with two detached speakers. The finely crafted wooden consoles that had been the standard for the home phonograph were replaced by small plastic boxes. The Japanese were also quick to exploit the opportunities of the tape cassette. The Philips compact cassette was enthusiastically adopted by Japanese manufacturers and incorporated into portable tape recorders. This was another product with its ancestry in the transistor radio. As more of them were sold, the price dropped, encouraging more consumers to buy. The cassette player became as commonplace in American society in the 1970’s as the transistor radio had been in the 1960’s.

Sony’s acquisition of the Western Electric transistor technology was a turning point in the fortunes of that company and of Japanese manufacturers in general. Less than ten years after suffering defeat in a disastrous war, Japanese industry served notice that it had lost none of its engineering capabilities and innovative skills. The production of the transistor radio was a testament to the excellence of Japanese research and development. Subsequent products proved that the Japanese had an uncanny sense of the potential market for consumer products based on transistor technology. The ability to incorporate solid-state electronics into innovative home entertainment products allowed Japanese manufacturers to dominate the world market for electronic consumer products and to eliminate most of their American competitors.

The little transistor radio was the vanguard of an invasion of new products unparalleled in economic history. Japanese companies such as Sony and Panasonic later established themselves at the leading edge of digital technology, the basis of a new generation of entertainment products. Instead of Japanese engineers scraping together the money to buy a license for an American technology, the great American companies went to Japan to license compact disc and other digital technologies. Sony Corporation
Transistors;licensed by Sony

Further Reading

  • Luh, Shu Shin. Business the Sony Way: Secrets of the World’s Most Innovative Electronics Giant. Oxford, England: Capstone, 2003. A history of the Sony Corporation detailing its business practices, as well as its technological innovations. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Lyons, Nick. The Sony Vision. New York: Crown, 1976. A popular history of Sony that follows its activities into the 1970’s. Well illustrated and informative, this book gives full accounts of the development of many of Sony’s transistorized products.
  • Morita, Akio, with Edwin Reingold and Mitsuko Shimomura. Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony. New York: Dutton, 1986. A personal account of the rise of the Sony corporation, written by one of its founders. The narrative begins in World War II and ends in the 1980’s. It gives Morita’s philosophy of business and provides insights into Sony’s strategy but often sinks into promotion of the company.
  • Reid, T. R. The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. This history of business and technology begins with the transistor and shows how it created new industries. The author’s acquaintance with many of the leading figures in the electronics industry allows important insights.
  • Scott, Otto. The Creative Ordeal: The Story of Raytheon. New York: Atheneum, 1974. This history of one of the leading American electronics companies provides the American version of the application of transistor technology.

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