Childhood & Early Life
Walter H. Brattain was born on February 10, 1902, in Xiamen, Fujian, China to Ross R. Brattain and Ottilie Houser Brattain. His father was a teacher at the ‘Ting-Wen Institute’ in China while his mother was a talented mathematician. His sister was Mari Brattain and brother was R. Robert Brattain who became a physicist.
In 1903, when he was still a toddler, he returned to the US with his mother, while his father joined them later.
He spent several years of his childhood in Spokane, Washington. In 1911 he moved with his family to a cattle ranch near Tonasket, Washington. He attended three high schools in Washington - first the ‘Queen Anne High School’ in Seattle (1915-16), then the ‘Tonasket High School’ in Tonasket (1916-18) and thereafter the ‘Moran School’ in Bainbridge Island (1920).
He joined ‘Whitman College’ in Walla Walla, Washington, from where his parents had graduated. In 1924 he earned a BS degree with a double major in mathematics and physics. He and his classmates E. John Workman, Vladimir Rojansky and Walker Bleakney, who achieved great heights in their respective careers, became famous as “the four horsemen of physics".
In 1926 he obtained MA degree from ‘University of Oregon’ in Eugene.
In 1929 he completed his Ph.D. from ‘University of Minnesota’ submitting thesis on ‘Efficiency of Excitation by Electron Impact and Anomalous Scattering in Mercury Vapor’, prepared under the supervision of noted American physicist John Torrence Tate, Sr.
He learned about the new field of quantum mechanics under distinguished American physicist and mathematician John Hasbrouck Van Vleck in Michigan.
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In 1927 he joined ‘National Bureau of Standards’ in Washington, D.C., as a radio engineer and aided in developing piezoelectric frequency standards.
He joined research and scientific development company, ‘Bell Telephone Laboratories’ (presently ‘Nokia Bell Labs’) as a research physicist in August 1929 and started working with Joseph A. Becker on the thermally induced flow of charge carriers in copper oxide rectifiers. Some of their experiments on thermal emission catered to the experimental confirmation of the Sommerfeld theory, developed principally by German theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld.
Brattain examined rectification and photo-effects on semiconductor surfaces of silicon and cuprous oxide and invented photo-effect at the free surface of a semiconductor.
During that period vacuum tubes had widespread application in the telephone industry even though these lacked efficiency and reliability. Thus the ‘Bell Laboratories’ made effort in developing an alternate technology.
In the early 1930s Brattain and William B. Shockley attempted in developing a field effect transistor at the ‘Bell Laboratories’, by working on the concept of a semiconductor amplifier that applied copper oxide, but remained unsuccessful.
While the Second World War was on, Brattain and Shockley became associated with ‘National Defense Research Committee’ and separately researched on magnetic detection of submarines at the ‘Columbia University’. Brattain’s team succeeded in developing magnetometers that were sensitive enough to discover irregularities in the magnetic field of earth caused due to submarines. This work led him to patent a design for a magnetometer head in 1944.
The ‘Bell Laboratories’ formed a team of researchers in 1945 to conduct fundamental research in the field of solid state physics with regard to communications technologies. American physicist and electrical engineer John Bardeen joined the team which was jointly led by Shockley and Stanley O. Morgan. Brattain knew Bardeen from the 1930s as a close friend of his brother Robert.
Shockley assigned Brattain and Bardeen the job of ascertaining the reason which was deterring his field effect transistor, a cylinder with a thin coating of silicon and seated near a metal plate, from functioning. The duo conducted several experiments in this pursuit and later Bardeen conceptualised that the possible reason for such non-functioning could be local differences in the surface state which trapped the charge carriers.
Brattain and Bardeen thrived in developing amplification, though of small level, by including a gold metal point into the silicon and enclosing it with distilled water. By substituting germanium in place of silicon they succeeded in enhancing the amplification, although for currents of low frequency.
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Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen finally displayed their first working transistor to their fellow scientists in Bell on December 23, 1947.
Thereafter Brattain worked with another research team of the lab that included scientists like P. J. Boddy and C. G. B. Garrett.
Later along with P. N. Sawyer and Boddy, he collaborated on a number of papers related to electrochemical methods in living matter. He also investigated the surface of living cells as well as their absorption procedures by applying phospholipid bilayers as a model, along with David Frasco, chemistry professor of ‘Whitman College’.
In 1952 he remained a visiting lecturer at ‘Harvard University.
He was conferred honorary D. Sc by ‘Portland University’ (1952), ‘Union College’ (1955), ‘Whitman College’ (1955) and ‘University of Minnesota’ (1957).
He served as a visiting lecturer at ‘Whitman College’ in 1962 and 1963 and became its visiting professor in 1963.
In 1967 he retired from ‘Bell Laboratories’, while continuing with his teaching work at the ‘Whitman College’ where he became an adjunct professor in 1972. In 1976 he retired from the college, but continued to serve as its consultant.
Brattain was a member of many renowned institutes and committees including ‘National Academy of Sciences’, ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’, ‘Naval Research Advisory Committee’ and the ‘Franklin Institute’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Keren Gilmore, a chemist, in 1935. Their son, William G. Brattain was born in 1943. William became a puzzle designer.
After Keren died of cancer on April 10, 1957, Brattain married Emma Jane (Kirsch) Miller, a mother of three, in 1958.
He suffered from Alzheimer's disease and died in a nursing home in Seattle, Washington on October 13, 1987. He was interred in the Pomeroy City Cemetery in Garfield County, Washington, US. A Y-shaped circuitry and schematics symbolizing transistor is engraved on his tombstone.