Walter Houser Brattain

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Walter Houser Brattain
Brattain circa 1950
Born (1902-02-10)February 10, 1902
Xiamen, China
Died October 13, 1987(1987-10-13) (aged 85)
Seattle, Washington, US
Nationality American
Fields Physics, Electronic engineering
Institutions Whitman College
Bell Laboratories
Alma mater Whitman College
University of Oregon
University of Minnesota
Doctoral advisor John Torrence Tate, Sr.
Known for Transistor
Notable awards Stuart Ballantine Medal (1952)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1956)

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


Walter Houser Brattain was born on 10 February 1902 in Xiamen, China, to American parents Ross R. Brattain and Ottilie Houser Brattain.[2] Ross R. Brattain was a teacher at a private school for Chinese boys.[3] Both parents were graduates of Whitman College;[4]:71 Ottilie Houser Brattain was a gifted mathematician.[5] The family returned to the United States in 1903, eventually settling on a cattle ranch near Tonasket, Washington.[4]:71

Brattain 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.[6] 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.[4]:71 Brattain's brother Robert, who followed him at Whitman College, also became a physicist.[4]:71

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.[6][7] At Michigan, 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.[4]:72

Brattain was a resident of Summit, New Jersey. 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, Washington from Alzheimer's Disease.[7][2]

Scientific work[edit]

From 1927 to 1928 Brattain worked for the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. In 1929 he joined Joseph A. Becker at Bell Telephone Laboratories as a research physicist. The two men worked on the heat-induced flow of charge carriers in copper oxide rectifiers.[4]:72 Some of their 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.[4]:74

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[6]

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.[9] An interdisciplinary group, it was co-led by Shockley and Stanley O. Morgan.[4]:76 The new group was soon joined by John Bardeen.[9] Bardeen was a close friend of Brattain's brother Robert, who had introduced John and Walter in the 1930s.[10] They often played bridge and golf together.[4]: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.[11]

A stylized replica of the first transistor
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.[8] Bardeen theorized that the failure to conduct might be the result of local variations in the surface state which trapped the charge carriers.[12]:467-468 They 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.[8]

On December 16, Brattain devised a method of placing two gold leaf contacts close together on a germanium surface. 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"[12] When the plastic was pushed down onto the surface of the crystal and voltage was applied to the other side of the crystal, current started to flow from one contact to the other.

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 transister geometry... Later experiments carried out by Brattain and me showed that very likely both occur in the point-contact transister."[12]: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".[13] The three men received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 "for research on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect."[6]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Honorary degrees
    • Doctor of Science, Portland University, 1952
    • Whitman College, 1955
    • Union College, 1955 (jointly with Dr. John Bardeen)
    • University of Minnesota, 1957


  1. ^ "Walter H. Brattain". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 10 August 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Walter Houser Brattain". Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 2014-12-08. Walter H. Brattain was born in Amoy, China, on February 10, 1902, the son of Ross R. Brattain and Ottilie Houser. ... 
  3. ^ "Brattain, Walter H. (1902 - 1987), Physicists, Physicists, Nobel Prize Winners". American National Biography Online. 2001. ISBN 9780198606697. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bardeen, John (1994). Walter Houser Brattain 1902-1987. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  5. ^ "Robert Brattain". PBS Online. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d Coca, Andreea; McFarland, Colleen; Mallen, Janet; Hastings, Emi. "Guide to the Walter Brattain Family Papers 1860-1990". Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA). Retrieved 2007. 
  7. ^ a b Susan Heller Anderson (October 14, 1987). "Walter Brattain, Inventor, Is Dead". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-12-08. Walter H. Brattain, who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor, died yesterday of Alzheimer's Disease in a nursing home in Seattle. He was 85 years old. ... 
  8. ^ a b c Levine, Alaina G. (2008). "John Bardeen, William Shockley, Walter Brattain Invention of the Transistor - Bell Laboratories". APS Physics. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c Braun, Ernest; Macdonald, Stuart (1982). Revolution in miniature : the history and impact of semiconductor electronics (2nd. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521289030. 
  10. ^ Riordan, Michael; Hoddeson, Lillian (1998). Crystal fire : the invention of the transistor and the birth of the information age. New York [u.a.]: Norton. p. 78. ISBN 9780393318517. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  11. ^ Isaacson, Walter (December 04, 2014). "Microchips: The Transistor Was the First Step". Bloomberg Business. Retrieved 4 March 2015.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  12. ^ a b c Hoddeson, Lillian (1992). Out of the crystal maze : chapters from the history of solid state physics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195053296. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  13. ^ Lundstrom, Mark (2014). Essential Physics of Nanoscale Transistors. World Scientific Pub Co Inc. ISBN 978-981-4571-73-9. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 

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