Transistors and Pan Am Airlines: Frontiers in History

Transistors and Pan Am Airlines: Frontiers in History

National History Day Interviews

Every year, we look forward to National History Day® with great anticipation. NHD is a nation-wide history contest open to middle and high schoolers. Participants choose a topic and do an in-depth project, with the guidance of a mentor teacher. They can do individual or group projects, and can choose from five formats for their final project: a documentary, an exhibit, a performance, a paper, or a website. Contestants compete at the local, the state, and finally, the national level, for prizes in a wide variety of categories. 

The Niels Bohr Library & Archives sponsors a special prize: the History of the Physical Sciences & Technology Prize. We got the chance to interview the 2023 senior and junior winners for this award. Please welcome Deepak Menon, Dheeraj Menon, Grace McWilliams, and Genevieve (Evie) Petersen to the blog!

Left to Right: Genevieve (Evie) Petersen and Grace McWilliams, and Dheeraj and Deepak Menon. Left photo courtesy Bria Petersen, right photo courtesy of National History Day.

Senior Prize

Deepak and Dheeraj Menon from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North West Windsor, New Jersey won the senior division prize for their exhibit, titled “From Bell Labs to Silicon Valley: How Transistors Became the Key to Unlocking a New Era of Technology.”

Deepak wrote the following on behalf of the team:

first transistor

The first transistor, built by Walter H. Brattain of Bell Labs in 1947. Catalog ID: Bell Labs F16 Credit: Bell Laboratories / Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc., courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

We started [participating in] National History Day in middle school. It was part of a program that competed in other competitions like Future Problem Solvers and supported the creation of the Makerspace in our school. I first began with a paper, however I realized that I was far better at creating exhibits. We always aim to do projects that are related to the history of the sciences. My brother and I have done topics such as the Apollo Program, the Daguerreotype and the history of the camera, the history of the GPS, and the IWC and the history of whaling. This year we decided we wanted to do a project that also was related to our home state of New Jersey. While brainstorming and browsing the web for potential ideas, we came across Bell Labs and the variety of inventions they have created. We found the transistor to be one of the more influential inventions that they created and decided to use that as the topic for our exhibit.

We have worked with exhibits before and we also believe that the exhibit is one of the best ways to present a project. It can have images and videos like websites and documentaries, it can have text like papers, and it can also contain props and other types of artistry like performances. Exhibits give you the most options to creatively express how you want to tell the narrative. However, this same freedom poses a challenge, because thinking of how something can best encapsulate the idea that we were looking for was quite hard. Between every competition we had major redesigns and revisions to our exhibit, from changing the layout of the images and text to what types of objects we used as props. Another challenge was trying to make sure that everything is consistent and looks good. We had to use a paper cutter to get consistent straight lines on our text and image papers.


The exhibit. Photo courtesy Deepak Menon.

The items used as props [in the exhibit] were:

  • The LED Lighting: This was bought off Amazon and mainly used to brighten the overall feel of the exhibit and give it more of a technology-based feel and the bright lights look similar to how circuits in a chip look. 
  • The Bulb Lights: These lights were also bought off Amazon, and while they don't provide a lot of light, they provide a nice feel to the exhibit and were used mainly as a decoration piece
  • The Transistor Radio: We also got the radio from Amazon, and used it as a prop to show one of the examples of how transistors were first used. These tiny transistor radios used to be commonplace in America and around the world, and they show just how far reaching the influence of the transistor was.
  • The GPS: This is an old GPS we own, and we used it as another example of a device that the creation of the transistor led to. It also was a callback to one of my brother's previous projects about GPS.
  • The box of transistors: We got these transistors from my Arduino kit and they were there as a physical representation of how a transistor looks. These transistors are used in large arduino circuits so that's why they are quite large, but the transistors present in most devices are quite tiny and are hard to see, so we believed these would work as a better stand-in for how transistors look.
  • The Vacuum Tubes: We got these tubes off Amazon and they were props to show off how vacuum tubes looked. However these tubes were smaller than the older counterparts that were used in transistor devices. Nonetheless they are multitudes bigger than a transistor and were placed near the transistors to show the magnitudes of difference in size.
  • The iPad: It was there to play sections of a documentary we found extremely useful. The documentary was called Transistorized! and was published by PBS and we wanted to show small clips from it, to help give more context and information about transistors.**

Research for our project was very fluid. We began research looking at Bell Labs in general and scouring their website and databases for information about some of their inventions and why they were so influential. When we eventually decided to zoom our project’s lens in on transistors, finding more sources became a bit more scarce. However, many hobbyist blogs would have lots of links to more credible sources that could be used for further research, and they essentially were like curated links of databases and primary source imagery that ended up helping us research tremendously.*

I believe visiting Bell Labs was one of the best things we did during our project. When we visited we got to see a lot of the previous inventions first hand. Another very useful aspect of visiting is that we were able to get in contact with a museum curator who helped send us some primary source documents and photos that weren’t available on their website. Our project became a lot more thorough from the resources we obtained from the curator, and I think that was a major reason why we were able to succeed at the state competition and also contributed to creating a strong project for the national competition. 
The biggest surprise [in the course of our research] would be the fact that William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, had a very antagonistic attitude toward his employees and coworkers. He fit the stereotype of mad genius, where he was described as being able to “see electrons” with the way that he was able to understand physics to such a high degree. However, Shockley would continue to become more and more antagonistic as he aged. In his later years, no one wanted to work with him simply because of his awful personality.
Teamwork and cooperation were the biggest skills that we improved on this year, due to the nature of the group exhibit. Last year we also worked on a group exhibit however, we weren’t very coordinated and our project ended up being a mess. This year we delegated separate tasks to each other and created goals that we wanted to achieve by certain times which helped make our project turn out better. Along with teamwork, our time management improved and we were able to slowly complete our project without rushing before deadlines, which allowed us to have a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the subject. 
A bit more about Deepak and Dheeraj:
My (Deepak) favorite subject in school is foreign language, because I love learning about other cultures and communication in general. My brother’s (Dheeraj) favorite subject is chemistry because he likes the logical yet intriguing nature of the reactions, equations and reductions. However we both love science and technology in general, as we always aim to do a project on a science or technology related subject in NHD. For extracurricular activities, we both compete in Taekwondo and have received our black belts. We also do a lot of volunteering related to disease organizations like the leukemia and lymphoma society. Another activity that we do is ultimate frisbee, which is similar to handball but using a frisbee instead of a ball.
 I enjoy watching a model creation youtuber named Studson Studio  ( He creates models of a variety of objects from pop culture and media from pieces of trash and recyclables. I think his style of videos are interesting and I often listen to them while I am doing other work. He also promotes the message that anything can have a use, where we can even use pieces of garbage to create something awesome.

Editor notes:
*We love hearing about blogs being used for research!
**The American Institute of Physics, our parent organization, helped sponsor Transistorized! and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives holds archival materials related to the documentary. We also have a web exhibit related to the film.

Junior Prize

Grace McWilliams and Genevieve (Evie) Petersen, hailing from Heights Middle School in Farmington, NM, took home the junior division prize for their website: Pan Am: Frontiers in Aviation.

Pan Am Airplane

Boeing 747-121, Pan American World Airways - "Clipper Neptune's Car", photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt. GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

1.    How did you get involved with National History Day?

We were required to do it last year as part of our curriculum for our social studies class. We made a documentary that qualified for nationals, however the contest was online so we weren’t able to travel to Washington DC. We were really looking forward to taking a trip to our nation’s capital and so decided to try again this year.

2.     How did you choose your topic?

Genevieve (Evie): I have family connections to Pan Am and grew up hearing stories about the company. When the time came to choose a project to fit the theme of New Frontiers, we thought of Pan Am.

3.     Why did you choose to do a website? What challenges did you run into?

We originally wanted to do a documentary but discovered during our research phase that there was too much information to fit in the 10 minute documentary time limit. While we ran into a similar issue with data space on our website, however, we found ways to format the site in order to fit more in.

4.     How did you approach researching for your project? Were there any resources that you found particularly useful?

We started online and at our local library, gathering surface-level information about Pan Am’s beginnings and accomplishments After we had a foundation, we researched deeper and looked more into podcasts, documentaries, archives and contacted various societies and museums. The Pan Am Historical Foundation website catalog had a wide range of information about Pan Am. We also contacted individuals at the Pan Am Museum Foundation, the Pan Am Historical Foundation, and World Wings International who we interviewed that were very helpful in assisting us with networking for additional interviews and locating primary sources.

Operation Babylift

Nurses and Vietnamese refugee children on an Operation Babylift flight upon its arrival at San Francisco International Airport, 5 April 1975. The Pan Am logo is visible on the closest baby’s bassinet. Public domain, NARA 23869151

5.     In the course of your research, did anything surprise you in particular?

We were both impressed with the personal experiences of diplomacy shared by some of the flight attendants we interviewed, such as the Pan Am baby lift out of Vietnam.

Evie: I was most interested in Pan Am’s role in the aviation technology development at the time such as their long-range radio navigation and weather stations.

Grace: I found Pan Am’s focus on setting the standard for aviation luxury and travel as well as their worldwide recognizable image fascinating.

6.    Your website is full of great visuals! What are your favorites?

We both loved the artist rendering of one of Pan Am’s first trimotor planes on our home page. We also thought the charts and graphs we used as evidence were fun as they were from the early and mid-1900’s.

7.     What skills did you learn and/or improve as a result of working on your NHD project?

As middle school students, we learned how to speak and present to professionals, network, interview, build a strong bibliography, conduct in-depth research, code, format, and create graphic design projects.

8.     What is your favorite school subject? Extracurricular activities?

Both of us love History and Math at school. Extracurricular activities that Evie participates in are soccer, tennis, singing, and art. Grace plays the violin, tennis, and softball.

9.     Please recommend us a website, podcast, YouTube channel, TikToker, or any other media you enjoy. (Can be related to your project or totally for fun)

We both loved the PBS Documentary series Across the Pacific which details the roadblocks and successes of Pan Am as they made transoceanic commercial flight possible. We would also recommend the Pan Am Podcast. 


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