CHAPTER 40 Appropriability
In my November 15 issue of Science, I found an interesting article titled "What's So Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)" by William Press, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Based on his presidential address at an AAAS meeting, the article deals with topics such as the effect of basic research on the economy of a country, the exponential growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita over the past 130 years, the relative amounts of R&D and of basic research funding over the years, etc. Of particular concern is the change in the nature of the funding of R&D and, specifically, basic research. In the 1960s, spurred by the launch of Sputnik, the federal government funded about 2/3 of the total R&D funding, with industry funding about 1/3. The situation today is reversed with industry about 2/3 and our federal government funding about 1/3 of our R&D effort. (There is other nonfederal funding of R&D by foundations and the like.)
Press stresses the concept of "appropriability", a word my spellchecker doesn't accept, even though I found it in my dictionary. I didn't find the dictionary definition helpful compared to Press's definition of the term as meaning "How well do the rewards flow back to the investor who takes the risk and puts up the money?" The article discusses how the returns from basic research are large but not very appropriable, especially in this era of rapid communication and dissemination of new findings or inventions. Take basic research that becomes applied research and leads to patents and to products and, as a consequence, economic growth. All this may not take place in the laboratory or company where the basic research was done and may not even take place in the same country. The appropriability of that basic research is low in that the investor does not get enough of the reward. Press used the term "investor", which I assume would be the company or institution paying the salary of the researcher doing the basic research. The researcher in such a case obviously will very rarely get his or her deserved monetary reward. Let me illustrate this with two very recent cases where former Bell Labs colleagues of mine were belatedly recognized for highly significant contributions that turned out to be not very appropriable.
Earlier this year, I noted that President Obama had presented a National Medal of Science to John Goodenough for his work on the lithium cobalt oxide cathode material used in Sony's lithium-ion battery. I also pointed out that the lithium-ion battery utilizes a carbon graphite anode patented by former Bell Labs colleague, Samar Basu. In my humble opinion, Samar should have also received a medal; it takes two electrodes to make a battery. In October, Basu did finally receive well deserved recognition when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) for his work contributing to the lithium-ion battery.
Ironically, the importance of Samar's invention was not recognized within our battery group at Bell Labs. We had spent over a decade working on a battery we called the Faraday cell, a AA-size battery which had a pure lithium anode and a niobium triselenide cathode, of which I was a co-inventor. A major battery company was about to manufacture our battery but cancelled at the last minute. Samar's invention was judged not to contribute to the Faraday effort. Even though today we read about lithium-ion battery fires or explosions, notably in Boeing airliners or Tesla cars, the lithium-graphite anode is much safer than our pure lithium anode would have been had our Faraday cells gone to market. I would guess that a huge majority of us owns at least one device powered by a lithium-ion battery.
Last month saw another belated recognition of a former Bell Labs colleague, Morris Tanenbaum. I had lunched with Morry in October at his club, where I had a delicious Florida grouper dish that brought back memories of the many times my wife and I spent on Marco Island, where I reveled in grouper three or four times a week! When I opened the business section of our November 10 Sunday Star-Ledger, I was shocked to find a half-page picture of Morry smiling at me with the headline "The Humble Pioneer. With the silicon transistor, Morris Tanenbaum helped usher in the computer age." It was Morry's 85th birthday and a few days earlier he had received the Science and Technology Medal awarded by the Research and Development Council of New Jersey for developing the first silicon transistor in 1955 (keep this date in mind). Today, many of us (virtually every younger person), carry around in our pockets hundreds of millions of silicon transistors in those ubiquitous smart devices.
When I interviewed at Bell Labs for a job, Gordon Teal was one of those who interviewed me. Gordon left for Texas Instruments (TI) shortly after I reported for work in 1952, the same year that Morry joined Bell Labs. (We both lived in garden apartments in Plainfield, NJ with our families and Morry and I used to golf together at a local public course.) For many years Teal was credited with making the first silicon transistor at TI. Indeed, at a celebration in 1997 of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the (germanium) transistor at Bell Labs, we all got signed copies of the book "Crystal Fire" from Michael Riordan, a co-author of the book, which told the story of the transistor and its early days. In the book, Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson describe at length the story of how Gordon Teal and his team at TI came up with the first silicon transistor. Morry Tanenbaum was at this celebration and it was there we reestablished our connection after many years when Morry moved around the Bell System, ending up as CFO and vice chairman of AT&T.
Well, Morry read Crystal Fire and was quite interested to find the date in 1954 when Teal made the "first" silicon transistor. It turned out that Morry had made, and documented, a silicon transistor a few months earlier in 1954. Morry called Riordan's attention to this and, some years later, Riordan wrote an article correcting the situation. Remember I said to keep in mind the 1955 date? I was confused by the Star-Ledger's mention of that date when the first silicon transistors were made in 1954 so, as I was writing this column, I called Morry about it. It turns out those first transistors were not very good transistors and were made by tweaking doping and crystal growth parameters in pulling silicon crystals. The crystals were grown by Ernie Buehler, crystal grower par excellence. In 1955, Morry collaborated with Cal Fuller. a diffusion expert, to make the truly significant silicon transistor by diffusing impurity elements into silicon from the vapor. The resulting silicon transistor performed admirably and it was news of that development that caused Jack Morton, head of the Bell Labs development area, to cancel the remainder of a trip in Europe and fly back to New Jersey to proclaim that henceforth all further development effort at Bell Labs would be devoted to silicon.
Appropriability. Did Morry Tanenbaum, Bell Labs or the Bell System get justly rewarded for this major contribution? I would argue that the answer is a resounding no. The Bell system was broken up, Bell Labs is a mere shell of its former self and Morry waited all these years to get an award for his contribution. I do suspect that his silicon transistor helped launch his managerial career but his other talents and personality must be credited for his rise to top positions in AT&T. Where did the major rewards flow for the silicon transistor? Jack Kilby, of Texas Instruments, and Robert Noyce, who co-founded both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, are credited with independently inventing the integrated circuit, which puts more than one silicon transistor on a single silicon chip. Kilby got a Nobel Prize for his invention; unfortunately, Noyce died before he could share the prize. The truly significant monetary rewards attributable to the silicon transistor have thus gone to the chipmakers, the computer makers, software developers, etc. The Star-Ledger article quotes the president of the R&D Council of New Jersey as saying, "Bill Gates stands on the shoulder of Morris Tanenbaum."
Let's get back to Samar Basu and appropriability. I won't go into detail but, as was the case for Morry, for many years the invention of the graphite anode for the lithium-ion battery was attributed to another person. When Samar interviewed at Bell Labs I attended his interview talk and he discussed work he was doing at the University of Pennsylvania on lithium in graphite. I was impressed and recommended to my management that Basu be hired in our battery department. In the case of the graphite anode, Bell Labs did not follow through and develop a lithium-ion battery with any kind of cathode.
In his short speech at the awards ceremony, which you can find on YouTube, Basu described his work at Penn and credited two professors there for their support. He also gave credit to Gunther Wertheim at Bell Labs for showing that the lithium was in the form of an ion in the graphite. I was surprised to hear him thank me for giving him a shoulder to cry on at Bell Labs. I was happy to hear him gave full credit and praise to the Japanese team for their work putting his anode and Goodenough's cathode together in the lithium-ion battery, saying that the patents would have stayed on a shelf collecting dust if it were not for their effort in developing the lithium-ion battery. Appropriability. As Press says, this may occur in another country!
Next column should be posted on or about January 1.
Allen F. Bortrum