Biography of Walter Houser Brattain

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Walter Houser Brattain was American scientist who, along with John Bardeen and William B. Shockley, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956 for his investigation of the properties of semiconductors-materials of which transistors are made and for the development of the transistor. The transistor replaced the bulkier vacuum tube for many uses and was the forerunner of microminiature electronic parts. His father, Ross, and mother, Ottilie, married just after they’d graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

Ross got a job teaching science and math in China, and Walter Houser Brattain was born on February 10, 1902 in Amoy. They didn’t stay abroad long: by 1903, the Brattains were back in Washington. Walter spent most of his youth on a large cattle ranch just south of the Canadian border. When he wasn’t doing school work, Walter had little time for anything besides helping out on the ranch. He was a cowboy.

In the fall of 1920, Brattain entered Whitman College and received a B.S. degree there in 1924. He claimed he majored in physics and math because they were the only subjects he was good at.

Brattain attended college at a turning point in American science, when physics was being transformed. Older students would have been expected to travel to Europe for a first-class physics education, but Brattain was in the first wave of those who could do just as well in the US. Encouraged by his professor Benjamin Brown to continue his studies, Brattain went on to the University of Oregon for his Masters (received M.A. in 1926) and to the University of Minnesota for a Ph.D. (awarded the Ph.D. in 1929).

Brattain’s first job out of graduate school was at the National Bureau of Standards as a radio engineer, but after a year there he wanted to get back to physics. At an American Physical Society meeting, he was about to ask his thesis advisor, John Tate, for help. But before he said anything, Tate introduced him to Joseph Becker of Bell Labs. “By the way, Becker is looking for a man,” he said, and Brattain quickly responded, “I’m interested!” Becker asked for only one qualification: he wanted to make sure that Brattain was the kind of guy who’d stand up to his superiors when necessary. Brattain, raised on a working ranch with a rifle in his saddle bags to shoot rattlesnakes, laughed. On August 1, 1929, Brattain moved to Becker’s lab in New York City. In 1935 he married the late Dr. Keren (Gilmore) Brattain; they had one son, William Gilmore Brattain.

Working with Becker, Brattain spent most of his time studying copper-oxide rectifiers. The pair thought they might be able to make an amplifier by putting a tiny metal grid in the middle of the device, similar to the design of vacuum tubes. A few years later, William Shockley came to him with a similar idea. Neither contraption actually worked. Working with crystals eventually paid off.

On March 6, 1940, Brattain and Becker were called into the office of Bell’s President, Mervin Kelly. There they saw Russell Ohl ‘s mysterious crystal that increased voltage whenever light was flashed on it. It turned out to be a very crude p-n junction, but no one knew it at the time. Brattain, who at first thought it was a practical joke, gave an off-the-cuff explanation that electrical current was being generated at a barrier inside. That theory turned out to be true. Kelly was suitably impressed.

Brattain spent the World War II years working on ways to detect submarines, and then returned to Bell Labs to find Kelly was reorganizing the researchers. Brattain was assigned to a new solid state group with Stanley Morgan and William Shockley at the head.

He wrote about it in January 1964: “A list came around on my desk of a new group that was being organized to do research in the solid state. The heads of this group were to be joint: S.O. Morgan and William Shockley. I read through this list and thought about it a minute and read through it quickly again, and I said, ‘By golly! There isn’t an s.o.b. in the group. This is some group.’ Then after a minute I had a second thought that maybe I was the s.o.b. in the group.”

John Bardeen, a friend of Brattain’s brother Robert, joined the group as well. Bardeen’s skill was in theory, while Brattain’s was in experimenting. The two men soon learned to work together beautifully – Bardeen would watch Brattain conduct an experiment, and then offer hypotheses about the results.

The chief field of his research has been the surface properties of solids. His early work was concerned with thermionic emission and adsorbed layers on tungsten. He continued on into the field of rectification and photo-effects at semiconductor surfaces, beginning with a study of rectification at the surface of cuprous oxide. This work was followed by similar studies of silicon. Dr. Brattain’s chief contributions to solid state physics have been the discovery of the photo-effect at the free surface of a semiconductor and work leading to a better understanding of the surface properties of semiconductors.

Brattain at work

The close relationship between Brattain and Bardeen paid off in what has become known as the “Miracle Month.” For four weeks the two men came up with one great idea after another. Over the month they built several devices – each one a little better than the last – and it all came together on Tuesday, December 16. Brattain sat down at their latest attempt to build an amplifier. He turned on the voltage and for once everything seemed to work just right. “This thing’s got gain!” Brattain said to no one in particular. That meant amplification.

After the point-contact transistor was built, a clash of personalities got the better of what had been a well-tuned research group. The fight was over just how much credit Shockley would receive. He was the team leader, but he worked on his own research at home and left Bardeen and Brattain alone.

A famous company publicity photo of the three men shows how skewed the relationships were: Shockley sat at center stage in front of the microscope as if he had done the critical experiments. It was Brattain’s laboratory bench and Brattain’s equipment, but Brattain stood behind his boss, as if Shockley had really done the work. In fact, management at Bell Labs insisted that Shockley appear in every publicity picture. He was the head of the group and deserved to be there, the lab management felt. But they kept his name off the patent. That did not make Brattain or Bardeen feel any better about Shockley.

The transistor, more than any other single development, made possible the marriage of computers and communication. Three AT&T Labs researchers – John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain — shared the Nobel Prize for their 1947 invention of this tiny, reliable,electronic component. In the years following its creation, the transistor gradually replaced the bulky, fragile vacuum tubes that had been used to amplify and switch signals. The transistor – and the eventual creation of integrated circuits that contained millions of transistors – served as the foundation for the development of modern electronics.

A close-up of the first transistor

Transistors were first publicly announced as a small item on an inside page of the New York Times.

The picture shows Walter Brattain with his parents in the lab after the invention of the transistor was announced.

At 7 AM, Thursday, November 1, 1956, Brattain was at home when he got a phone call from a reporter. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor. He was soon swamped by the media. Later that morning he attended a meeting in the labs’ Murray Hill auditorium. As he walked into the room, everyone spontaneously stood up and began to clap.

It brought tears to his eyes. Later he wrote: “What happened there is a matter of record, except possibly the extreme emotion that one feels on receiving the acclamation of one’s colleagues and friends of years, knowing full well that one could not have accomplished the work he had done without them, and that it was really only a stroke of luck that it was he and not one of them.”

Dr. Brattain received the honorary Doctor of Science degree from Portland University in 1952, from Whitman College and Union College in 1955, and from the University of Minnesota in 1957. In 1952 he was awarded the Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute, and in 1955 the John Scott Medal. The degree at Union College and the two medals were received jointly with Dr. John Bardeen, in recognition of their work on the transistor. He was granted a number of patents and wrote many articles on solid-state physics.

In 1958 he married Mrs. Emma Jane (Kirsch) Miller. Dr. Brattain lived in Summit, New Jersey, near the Murray Hill (N.J.) laboratory of Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Over the next few years, Brattain continued to work in Shockley’s transistor group, but usually wasn’t invited to work on the most exciting research. He soon stopped reporting to Shockley of his own accord, and eventually demanded that he be transferred to another group altogether. Much happier away from Shockley, Brattain remained at Bell until he retired in 1967.

William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain, the three Bell Labratory physicists who invented the transistor, a device that amplifies, controls and generates electrical impulses, are honored on the 25th anniversary of the invention. 1972, New York City.

After he retired from Bell Labs, Brattain moved back to Walla Walla to teach at his alma mater, Whitman College. He worked on biophysics, taught a physics course for non-science majors, and listened to the music being played on campus so loudly thanks to his invention. “The only regret I have about the transistor is its use for rock and roll,” he said more than once.

Walter Houser Brattain died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 85 on October 13, 1987.

A postal stamp memorizing Walter Houser Brattain was released in Republique Gabonaise, 1995.

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