Walter Houser Brattain

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Walter Houser Brattain
Brattain circa 1950
Born(1902-02-10)February 10, 1902
DiedOctober 13, 1987(1987-10-13) (aged 85)
Alma mater Whitman College
University of Oregon
University of Minnesota
Known for Transistor
Awards Stuart Ballantine Medal (1952)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1956)
Scientific career
Fields Physics, Electronic engineering
Institutions Whitman College
Bell Laboratories
Doctoral advisor John Torrence Tate, Sr.

Walter Houser Brattain ( /ˈbrætən/ ; February 10, 1902 – October 13, 1987) was an American physicist at Bell Labs who, along with fellow scientists John Bardeen and William Shockley, invented the point-contact transistor in December 1947. [1] They shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention. Brattain devoted much of his life to research on surface states.

Bell Labs research and scientific development company

Nokia Bell Labs is an industrial research and scientific development company owned by Finnish company Nokia. Its headquarters are located in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Other laboratories are located around the world. Bell Labs has its origins in the complex past of the Bell System.

John Bardeen American physicist and engineer

John Bardeen was an American physicist and electrical engineer. He is the only person to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics twice: first in 1956 with William Shockley and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor; and again in 1972 with Leon N Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer for a fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory.

William Shockley American physicist and inventor

William Bradford Shockley Jr. was an American physicist and inventor. Shockley was the manager of a research group at Bell Labs that included John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. The three scientists were jointly awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for "their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect".



Walter Brattain was born in Amoy (now Xiamen), Fujian, Qing China, to American parents Ross R. Brattain and Ottilie Houser Brattain. [2] Ross R. Brattain was a teacher at the Ting-Wen Institute, [3] :11 a private school for Chinese boys. [4] Both parents were graduates of Whitman College; [5] :71 Ottilie Houser Brattain was a gifted mathematician. [6] Ottilie and baby Walter returned to the United States in 1903, followed by Ross. [3] :12 The family lived for several years in Spokane, Washington, then settled on a cattle ranch near Tonasket, Washington in 1911. [3] :12 [5] :71

Xiamen Prefecture-level & Sub-provincial city in Fujian, Peoples Republic of China

Xiamen (厦门) formerly known from its Hokkien pronunciation as Amoy [e˨˩ bŋ̍˨˨ ʨʰi˨˨], is a sub-provincial city in southeastern Fujian province, People's Republic of China, beside the Taiwan Strait. It is divided into six districts: Huli, Siming, Jimei, Tong'an, Haicang, and Xiang'an. Altogether, these cover an area of 1,699.39 square kilometers (656.14 sq mi) with a population of 3,531,347 as of 2010. The urbanized area of the city has spread from its original island to include parts of all six of its districts, with a total population of 1,861,289. This area connects to Quanzhou in the north and Zhangzhou in the west, making up a metropolis of more than five million people. The Jinmen or Kinmen Islands administered by the Republic of China lie less than 6 kilometers (4 mi) away.

Fujian Province

Fujian is a province on the southeast coast of mainland China. Fujian is bordered by Zhejiang to the north, Jiangxi to the west, Guangdong to the south, and the Taiwan Strait to the east. The name Fujian came from the combination of Fuzhou and Jianzhou, two cities in Fujian, during the Tang dynasty. While its population is chiefly of Han origin, it is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse provinces in China.

Whitman College private liberal arts college, located in Walla Walla, Washington, USA

Whitman College is a private liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington. Initially founded as a seminary by a territorial legislative charter in 1859, the school became a four-year degree-granting institution in 1882. Whitman College is accredited by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges and competes athletically in the NCAA Division III Northwest Conference. The school offers 48 majors and 33 minors in the liberal arts and sciences, and has a student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1. Whitman was the first college in the Pacific Northwest to install a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and the first school in the United States to require comprehensive exams for graduation. Whitman was ranked tied for 41st in the nation in the 2017 U.S. News & World Report list of Best Liberal Arts Colleges. Whitman's acceptance rate for 2015 was 41%.

Brattain attended high school in Washington, spending one year at Queen Anne High School in Seattle, two years at Tonasket High School, and one year at Moran School for Boys on Bainbridge Island. [7] Brattain then attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where he studied with Benjamin H. Brown (physics) and Walter A. Bratton (mathematics). Brattain earned a bachelor's degree from Whitman College in 1924, with a double major in physics and mathematics. [8] Brattain and his classmates Walker Bleakney, Vladimir Rojansky and E. John Workman were later known as "the four horsemen of physics" because all went on to distinguished careers. [5] :71 Brattain's brother Robert, who followed him at Whitman College, also became a physicist. [5] :71

Queen Anne High School, Seattle

Queen Anne High School (1909–1981) was a Seattle Public Schools high school on Galer Street atop Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, Washington, United States. The building was converted to condominium apartments in 2007.

Seattle City in Washington, United States

Seattle is a seaport city on the West Coast of the United States. It is the seat of King County, Washington. With an estimated 730,000 residents as of 2018, Seattle is the largest city in both the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest region of North America. According to U.S. Census data released in 2018, the Seattle metropolitan area’s population stands at 3.87 million, and ranks as the 15th largest in the United States. In July 2013, it was the fastest-growing major city in the United States and remained in the Top 5 in May 2015 with an annual growth rate of 2.1%. In July 2016, Seattle was again the fastest-growing major U.S. city, with a 3.1% annual growth rate. Seattle is the northernmost large city in the United States.

Tonasket High School is located in Tonasket, Washington about 25 miles south of the Canada–US border and 160 miles west of Spokane. The elementary, middle, and high school are all located on the same property; grades 6-12 share a spacious library and resource center. The Outreach Program provides parents with the opportunity to supervise and instruct their children at home while having the professional guidance of a certified teacher. The school's athletic teams are the Tonasket Tigers and the Lady Tigers. The school is home to the award-winning Tonasket School Marching Band, which traveled to Anaheim in March 2011 to perform at Disneyland and meet with actor/musician Jack Black, who personally donated $10,000 to help fund the trip.

Brattain earned a Master of Arts from the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1926, and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1929. [8] [9] At Minnesota, Brattain had the opportunity to study the new field of quantum mechanics under John Hasbrouck Van Vleck. His thesis, supervised by John T. Tate, was Efficiency of Excitation by Electron Impact and Anomalous Scattering in Mercury Vapor. [5] :72

A Master of Arts is a person who was admitted to a type of master's degree awarded by universities in many countries, and the degree is also named Master of Arts in colloquial speech. The degree is usually contrasted with the Master of Science. Those admitted to the degree typically study linguistics, history, communication studies, diplomacy, public administration, political science, or other subjects within the scope of the humanities and social sciences; however, different universities have different conventions and may also offer the degree for fields typically considered within the natural sciences and mathematics. The degree can be conferred in respect of completing courses and passing examinations, research, or a combination of the two.

University of Oregon Public research university in Eugene, Oregon

The University of Oregon is a public flagship research university in Eugene, Oregon. Founded in 1876, the institution's 295-acre campus is along the Willamette River. Since July 2014, UO has been governed by the Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon. The university has a Carnegie Classification of "highest research activity" and has 19 research centers and institutes. UO was admitted to the Association of American Universities in 1969.

Eugene, Oregon City in Oregon, United States

Eugene is a city in the U.S. state of Oregon. It is at the southern end of the verdant Willamette Valley, near the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers, about 50 miles (80 km) east of the Oregon Coast.

Walter Brattain married twice. His first wife was chemist Keren Gilmore. They married in 1935 and had a son, William G. Brattain, in 1943. Keren Gilmore Brattain died April 10, 1957. [10] Walter Brattain married Mrs. Emma Jane (Kirsch) Miller, who already had three children, in 1958. [8]

He moved to Seattle, Washington, in the 1970s where he lived until his death. He died on October 13, 1987, in a nursing home in Seattle from Alzheimer's Disease. [2] [9] He is buried in Pomeroy City Cemetery, Garfield County, Washington, USA. [11]

Scientific work

From 1927 to 1928 Brattain worked for the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., where he helped to develop piezoelectric frequency standards. In August 1929 he joined Joseph A. Becker at Bell Telephone Laboratories as a research physicist. [12] The two men worked on the heat-induced flow of charge carriers in copper oxide rectifiers. [5] :72 Brattain was able to attend a lecture by Arnold Sommerfeld. [12] Some of their subsequent experiments on thermionic emission provided experimental validation for the Sommerfeld theory. They also did work on the surface state and work function of tungsten and the adsorption of thorium atoms. [5] :74 Through his studies of rectification and photo-effects on the semiconductor surfaces of cuprous oxide and silicon, Brattain discovered the photo-effect at the free surface of a semiconductor. This work was considered by the Nobel prize committee to be one of his chief contributions to solid state physics. [2]

At the time, the telephone industry was heavily dependent on the use of vacuum tubes to control electron flow and amplify current. Vacuum tubes were neither reliable nor efficient, and Bell Laboratories wanted to develop an alternative technology. [13] As early as the 1930s Brattain worked with William B. Shockley on the idea of a semiconductor amplifier that used copper oxide, an early and unsuccessful attempt at creating a field effect transistor. Other researchers at Bell and elsewhere were also experimenting with semiconductors, using materials such as germanium and silicon, but the pre-war research effort was somewhat haphazard and lacked strong theoretical grounding. [14]

During World War II, both Brattain and Shockley were separately involved in research on magnetic detection of submarines with the National Defense Research Committee at Columbia University. [8] Brattain's group developed magnetometers sensitive enough to detect anomalies in the earth's magnetic field caused by submarines. [3] :104 [12] As a result of this work, in 1944, Brattain patented a design for a magnetometer head. [15]

In 1945, Bell Labs reorganized and created a group specifically to do fundamental research in solid state physics, relating to communications technologies. Creation of the sub-department was authorized by the vice-president for research, Mervin Kelly. [14] An interdisciplinary group, it was co-led by Shockley and Stanley O. Morgan. [5] :76 The new group was soon joined by John Bardeen. [14] Bardeen was a close friend of Brattain's brother Robert, who had introduced John and Walter in the 1930s. [3] They often played bridge and golf together. [5] :77 Bardeen was a quantum physicist, Brattain a gifted experimenter in materials science, and Shockley, the leader of their team, was an expert in solid-state physics. [16]

A stylized replica of the first transistor Replica-of-first-transistor.jpg
A stylized replica of the first transistor
John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain at Bell Labs, 1948. Bardeen Shockley Brattain 1948.JPG
John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain at Bell Labs, 1948.

According to theories of the time, Shockley's field effect transistor, a cylinder coated thinly with silicon and mounted close to a metal plate, should have worked. He ordered Brattain and Bardeen to find out why it wouldn't. During November and December the two men carried out a variety of experiments, attempting to determine why Shockley's device wouldn't amplify. [13] Bardeen was a brilliant theorist; [17] Brattain, equally importantly, "had an intuitive feel for what you could do in semiconductors". [14] :40 Bardeen theorized that the failure to conduct might be the result of local variations in the surface state which trapped the charge carriers. [18] :467–468 Brattain and Bardeen eventually managed to create a small level of amplification by pushing a gold metal point into the silicon, and surrounding it with distilled water. Replacing silicon with germanium enhanced the amplification, but only for low frequency currents. [13]

On December 16, Brattain devised a method of placing two gold leaf contacts close together on a germanium surface. [16] Brattain reported: "Using this double point contact, contact was made to a germanium surface that had been anodized to 90 volts, electrolyte washed off in H2O and then had some gold spots evaporated on it. The gold contacts were pressed down on the bare surface. Both gold contacts to the surface rectified nicely... One point was used as a grid and the other point as a plate. The bias (D.C.) on the grid had to be positive to get amplification" [18]

As described by Bardeen, "The initial experiments with the gold spot suggested immediately that holes were being introduced into the germanium block, increasing the concentration of holes near the surface. The names emitter and collector were chosen to describe this phenomenon. The only question was how the charge of the added holes was compensated. Our first thought was that the charge was compensated by surface states. Shockley later suggested that the charge was compensated by electrons in the bulk and suggested the junction transistor geometry... Later experiments carried out by Brattain and me showed that very likely both occur in the point-contact transistor." [18] :470

On December 23, 1947, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, and William B. Shockley demonstrated the first working transistor to their colleagues at Bell Laboratories. Amplifying small electrical signals and supporting the processing of digital information, the transistor is "the key enabler of modern electronics". [19] The three men received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 "for research on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect." [8]

Convinced by the 1947 demonstration that a major breakthrough was being made, Bell Laboratories focused intensively on what it now called the Surface States Project. Initially, strict secrecy was observed. Carefully restricted internal conferences within Bell Labs shared information about the work of Brattain, Bardeen, Shockley and others who were engaged in related research. [18] :471 Patents were registered, recording the invention of the point-contact transistor by Bardeen and Brattain. [20] There was considerable anxiety over whether Ralph Bray and Seymour Benzer, studying resistance in germanium at Purdue University, might make a similar discovery and publish before Bell Laboratories. [14] :38–39

On June 30, 1948, Bell Laboratories held a press conference to publicly announce their discovery. They also adopted an open policy in which new knowledge was freely shared with other institutions. By doing so, they avoided classification of the work as a military secret, and made possible widespread research and development of transistor technology. Bell Laboratories organized several symposia, open to university, industry and military participants, which were attended by hundreds of scientists in September 1951, April 1952, and 1956. Representatives from international as well as domestic companies attended. [18] :471–472, 475–476

Shockley believed (and stated) that he should have received all the credit for the discovery of the transistor. [20] [21] [22] He actively excluded Bardeen and Brattain from new areas of research, [23] in particular the junction transistor, which Shockley patented. [20] Shockley's theory of the junction transistor was an "impressive achievement", pointing the way to future solid-state electronics, but it would be several years before its construction would become practically possible. [14] :43–44

Brattain transferred to another research group within Bell Laboratories, working with C. G. B. Garrett, and P. J. Boddy. He continued to study the surface properties of solids and the "transistor effect", so as to better understand the various factors underlying semiconductor behavior. [5] :79–81 [24] Describing it as "an intolerable situation", Bardeen left Bell Laboratories in 1951 to go to the University of Illinois, where he eventually won a second Nobel Prize for his theory of superconductivity. [20] Shockley left Bell Laboratories in 1953 and went on to form the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory at Beckman Instruments. [23] [25]

In 1956, the three men were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics by King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden "for research on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect." [8] Bardeen and Brattain were included for the discovery of the point-contact transistor; Shockley for the development of the junction transistor. Walter Brattain is credited as having said, when told of the award, "I certainly appreciate the honor. It is a great satisfaction to have done something in life and to have been recognized for it in this way. However, much of my good fortune comes from being in the right place, at the right time, and having the right sort of people to work with." [26] Each of the three gave a lecture. Brattain spoke on Surface Properties of Semiconductors, [27] Bardeen on Semiconductor Research Leading to the Point Contact Transistor, [28] and Shockley on Transistor Technology Evokes New Physics. [29]

Brattain later collaborated with P. J. Boddy and P. N. Sawyer on several papers on electrochemical processes in living matter. [5] :80 He became interested in blood clotting after his son required heart surgery. He also collaborated with Whitman chemistry professor David Frasco, using phospholipid bilayers as a model to study the surface of living cells and their absorption processes. [23]


Brattain taught at Harvard University as a visiting lecturer in 1952 and at Whitman College as a visiting lecturer in 1962 and 1963, and a visiting professor beginning in 1963. Upon formally retiring from Bell Laboratories in 1967, he continued to teach at Whitman, becoming an adjunct professor in 1972. He retired from teaching in 1976 but continued to be a consultant at Whitman. [8]

At Whitman, the Walter Brattain Scholarships are awarded on a merit basis to "entering students who have achieved high academic excellence in their college preparatory work." All applicants for admission are considered for the scholarship, which is potentially renewable for four years. [30]

Awards and honors

Walter Brattain has been widely recognized for his contributions. [8]

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