Childhood & Early Years
Clinton Joseph Davisson was born on 22 October 1881, in Bloomington, Illinois. His father, Joseph Davisson, was a soldier in the Union Army. In 1865, he settled in Bloomington and began working as a contract painter. His mother, Mary Calvert Davisson, was a teacher. He had one sister, Carrie.
Clinton Davisson had his early education at Bloomington High School. He graduated from there in 1902 and entered University of Chicago on scholarship; but because of financial reason, had to leave after around four quarters.
Sometime in 1903, he found employment with a telephone company in Bloomington. Fortunately, Professor Robert A. Millikan, who had spotted his talent, came to his aid at this juncture.
On his recommendation, Davisson joined the Purdue University in January 1904 as an assistant in the physics department. Subsequently, in the fall of the same year, he went back to Chicago.
He remained in residence at the University of Chicago for around a year. Then in the fall of 1905, again on the recommendation of Professor R. A. Millikan, Davisson joined Princeton University as a part time Instructor in Physics, a post he occupied until 1910.
Here too he quickly impressed the professors and whenever his duties permitted him to do so, he studied under renowned academics like Professor Francis Magie, Professor E. P. Adams, Professor James Jeans and Professor O.W. Richardson. He also had the good fortune to assist Professor Richardson in his researches during this period.
Also from 1905 to 1908, each year he returned to the University of Chicago for the summer quarters, thus completing his course. Finally in August 1908, he received his B.Sc. degree from the institution.
Afterwards, he began his doctoral work under Professor Richardson at the University of Princeton and at the same time continued working as a part time instructor till 1910. He was awarded a Fellowship in Physics at the same institute for the year 1910-1911.
Finally, Clinton Joseph Davisson completed his Ph.D in Physics in June 1911. His thesis was titled ‘On The Thermal Emission of Positive Ions From Alkaline Earth Salts’.
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Davisson began his career in September 1911 as an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Institute of Technology, a private research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working there until 1917. Meanwhile, he made a trip to England to work with Professor J.J. Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory for the summer of 1913.
In 1917, he was refused enlistment by the United States Army. Therefore, he did the next best thing, accepting war-time employment in the Engineering Department of the Western Electric Company, New York City.
His initial intention was to utilize the summer holidays by working there. Later, he took leave of absence from Carnegie Institute of Technology for the duration of the World War I and continued his research work.
As the war ended in 1918, he resigned from his post at Carnegie because the job involved heavy teaching assignments, which left little scope for basic research. In the six years that he spent there, he was able to undertake only one research work.
Contrarily, Western Electric Company offered him freedom to undertake full time basic research. Therefore, he took up permanent position there, becoming a Member of the Technical Staff at its Telephone Laboratory. Later in 1925, it was renamed as Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Davisson’s first assignment at the Western Electric was to build vacuum tubes for military use during the war. From 1919, he began his work on the emission phenomena of oxide-coated cathodes.
Also in 1919, he by chance found that, a few secondary electrons from nickel under electron bombardment have the same energy as the primary electrons. Later they measured the distribution-in-angle of these secondary electrons and concluded that they have two maximums.
Subsequently, they repeated the experiment, replacing nickel with other metals; but failed to come to any theoretical conclusion from them. Later, in April 1925, an accident in his laboratory changed the course of his investigation.
While working on scattering of electrons, the liquid-air bottle exploded accidentally and this made his target, consisting of many tiny crystals, heavily oxidized. He now set out to clean the target by protracted heating. Once that was done, he found a change in the distribution-in-angle of the secondary electrons.
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He then began working on it and found that because of prolonged heating the tiny crystals in the target had converted to several large crystals. Davisson began bombarding targets of single crystals immediately.
In 1926, he travelled to England, where he attended a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford. It was at this meeting that he learned about Louis de Broglie’s hypothesis in details and decided that the results of his experiment might have something to do with it.
On returning back to the U.S.A, he, along with Lester Germer, began working on it once more. Finally in January 1927 they observed electron beams resulting from diffraction by a single crystal of nickel. The results confirmed de Broglie’s hypothesis, which says that particles of matter such as electrons have wave-like properties.
From early 1930s, he began working on electron waves. He was especially interested in their application to crystal physics and electron microscopy. He was one of the first scientists to develop analytical procedures for designing structures for sharply focusing electron beams.
He spent the last years in the Bell Telephone Laboratories working on variety of crystal physics problems, bringing fresh approach to the subject. At the same time, he also helped the young scientists, fresh from universities, to adjust to the new environment here.
In 1946, he left Bell Laboratories to join University of Virginia as visiting professor of research, where he worked until 1954. Here he taught both the undergraduate and graduate students. Concurrently, he began working on gyromagnetic ratios in ferromagnetic material, trying to measure it by using a magnetic suspension.
Personal Life & Legacy
While working at the University of Princeton, Clinton Davisson met Professor O.W. Richardson’s sister Charlotte. They got married on August 4, 1911, just before he joined Carnegie Institute of Technology as Assistant Professor
The couple had four children; three sons named Clinton Owen, James Willans and Richard Joseph and a daughter named Elizabeth Mary. James and Richard later followed their father’s footsteps and became research physicists.
In 1954, Davisson retired from University of Virginia. He was now seventy-four and physically very weak. However, his mind was equally alert and his interest in scientific matters was high as before. Even at this stage, one could see him sitting for hours, trying to solve different scientific problems.
Clinton Davisson died peacefully in sleep at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia on the night of February 1, 1958.