Spotlight belatedly shines on local scientist

While under the oppression of Nazi Germany, local scientist Dr. Herbert F. Matare and his partner, the late Heinrich Welker, managed to create a prototype of the transistor; but a little too late for worldwide recognition and reward.

By Jonathan Friedman/Special to The Malibu Times

If not for World War II, Dr. Herbert F. Matare and the late Heinrich Welker would likely be remembered as the inventors of the transistor. Ninety-year-old Matare, who lives most of the year in Malibu and spends his summers in Germany, said he finally created a prototype just before a June 1948 press conference at which Bell Laboratories announced it had created the transistor.

In his new book, “The Silicon Revolution,” Belgian Armand Van Dormael attempts to give Matare and Welker the recognition they never got. He includes their story in a chapter appropriately titled, “History Revisited.”

In 1944, the German physicists reached a milestone in their research at a Berlin laboratory. But with the nation in chaos, they were unable to publish their findings or get a patent. When the Soviet army approached the city later that year, all the scientists were told to leave. They were moved to a laboratory in western Germany, which the Americans closed the next year.

The two were eventually able to continue their research at a Westinghouse laboratory in Paris after the war. But it would be a Bell Labs trio in New Jersey who would be credited for the product that revolutionized the world into the information age, and would later earn the Nobel Prize.


Van Dormael said Matare’s work was a hardly a secret. Not only was it well publicized in France, but also Bell Labs kept a close eye on the latest news from across the Atlantic.

“There were ongoing worries about the Paris group at Bell Labs, because it would impede their (Bell Labs) efforts to obtain a patent on transistors,” Van Dormael said.

Matar said the attention went to America because the excitement was louder there. But he said more important to him than receiving recognition for his work is that everybody understands nobody cheated.

“When I was asked ‘Did you copy something from Bell or did they copy something from you?’ I said, ‘Neither were absolutely true,’ Matar said. “You can show that they are two different ways.”

Matare’s son, Vitus, a Malibu architect, said it should come as no surprise that his father considers that to be the more significant issue.

“It is and always has been irrelevant to him (that he be recognized),” Vitus Matare said. ” … My dad would say, ‘they can have that patent. They’ve totally missed the point … There’s a theory to be worked out here. There’s a lot of research to be done.'”

The younger Matare said semiconductors are practically his father’s only interest. His mind is so full of equations and theories that Matare has little room for much else. He cannot even remember the date of his son’s birthday, despite it being the same day as his.

“He’s been great as a dad, but day and night his mind is on that (semiconductors),” Matare said. “And he’s the sort of person that gets up several times in the middle of the night to do some math.”

Occasionally, Matare has tried to tell his side of the story. In 1998, he submitted a piece for a special publication commemorating the transistor’s 50th anniversary. But the editor dismissed it as a false tale. Matare said he believes Bell Labs, who sponsored the anniversary celebration, did not want his story included.

“This was not very opportune for them to have another transistor inventor,” he said.

Matare, who moved to the United States in 1953, has hardly led an unsuccessful life. He has been credited with 83 patents and has published scientific books and hundreds of articles. This all coming from a man who had several close calls while living in Nazi Germany

The Gestapo once searched his home, and an officer once interrogated him on allegations that Matare had suggested Hitler should be killed.

“I told him I did not use those words,” Matare said, somehow able to laugh about the ordeal more than 50 years later. “But I never said I didn’t say it.”

This was not Matare’s final interrogation. He said he spoke too freely, and would get in trouble when he shared his thoughts with the wrong people.

From those frightening days Matare has gone on to become a significant name in physics. He remains active, currently working on a project to generate electricity from solar energy. Matare

said he has no plans for retirement. And his son said it wouldn’t be good for him anyway.

“What you have there is a very tired body being dragged behind a very active brain,” he said.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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