John Bardeen

“The combined results of several people working together is often much more effective than could be that of an individual scientist working alone.” (John Bardeen)

Bardeen was one of the trio of scientists responsible for the invention of the transistor in 1947.

John Bardeen was born on May 23, 1908, in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the second son of Charles Bardeen, a Professor of Anatomy and Dean of the Medical School – he was one of its founders – of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Althea Bardeen. His mother studied oriental art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she also ran an interior decorating business.

The young Bardeen was a bright child and excelled in maths. Due to his outstanding school results, his parents decided to move him from third grade up into junior high.

When Bardeen was 12 years old, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. His father decided not to tell his children the full truth about their mother’s illness in order not to upset them, so Bardeen was very shocked and heartbroken when she died of her illness.

In 1923 he completed his high school and started at the University of Wisconsin to study Electrical Engineering, a choice partly motivated by the fact that it included lots of mathematics – a field he loved. He received his B.Sc. in 1928 followed by his M.Sc. in 1929.

By that time the great depression had struck the U.S. and jobs in physics were scarce to find. Bardeen joined the Gulf Oil Company in their Research Laboratories as a geophysicist but he kept looking for an opening in the world of physics as he felt his interests were more in theoretical physics than in geophysics. In theoretical physics, mathematics is used to describe certain aspects of physics. In 1933 he started at Princeton University to work on his Ph.D. in mathematical physics. He wrote his thesis on a problem in solid state physics. Before his thesis was completed he was offered a position as a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University in 1935 where he worked for three years. Princeton awarded him his Ph.D. in 1936.

In 1938 Bardeen started as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Minnesota. In 1941 he took leave of absence and served as a civilian physicist at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C., where he researched the use of magnetism in detecting mines and torpedoes.

Bell Labs and the first transistor

After the war, Bardeen was approached by Shockley, whom he knew from his years as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early thirties. Shockley was by then working for Bell Laboratories and headed a research team on solid state physics. Shockley wanted Bardeen to join his team and offered him a much higher salary than he would be earning at the University of Minnesota. For Bardeen, who had married just before the war, the choice was easy. The after-effects of the war could still be felt – at Bell Labs a new building was under construction and he was asked to temporarily share the office with another member of Shockley’s group, who had worked for Bell Labs for many years – Walter Brattain. Over time, Bardeen and Brattain would become good friends and would spend many a weekend on the local golf course.

The group was tasked to find a solid state alternative for the inefficient and unreliable vacuum tube. While Brattain prepared and carried out the experiments, Bardeen was observing and was soon caught up in the drive to find a working solution. By December 1947 the team had succeeded and the first point-contact transistor had been developed.

Things turn sour

Soon after the invention of the transistor, the Bell Labs attorneys prepared the patent applications which were registered with the names of Brattain and Bardeen on it – U.S. Patent Number 2,524,035. Shockley’s name had been left out as part of his contribution – the field effect principle – had already been patented to Lilienfeld in 1930. But with Shockley being the team leader, Bell Labs continuously presented the transistor as being made by the group of three – Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain. In the meantime Shockley continued to work on his own version – the junction transistor – and forbid the other two physicists to work on this. Combined with Shockley’s habit of taking the lion’s share of the credit in public, Bardeen and Brattain were upset enough to virtually stop working on and contributing to further development of the transistor. Unable to conduct research as he pleased, Bardeen started looking for greener pastures. In 1951 he joined the University of Illinois to become Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics. He would hold this position until 1975 when he became professor emeritus.

Super conductivity

While at Illinois he started two major research programs, one on semiconductors and one on superconductivity. The last subject had triggered his interest while working on the transistor at Bell Labs. Superconductivity is the phenomenon observed in several metals whereby they lose virtually all their resistance when cooled down to near absolute zero (-273˚C), i.e. they become superconductive. It was Bardeen who, together with post-doctoral student Leon Cooper and graduate student Bob Schrieffer, developed this theory – the BCS theory, named after Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer.

This 1977 Comores souvenir sheet portrays 14 scientists all having been awarded
the Nobel Prize for Physics. In the bottom-right one finds f.l.t.r. John Bardeen,
Walter Brattain and William Shockley, the inventors of the transistor.

Two Nobels

In 1956, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley were jointly honored with the Nobel Prize for Physics “for their research in semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect.” At the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, where they received their medals from King Gustav of Sweden, Bardeen was jokingly admonished by the king that he had only brought one of his three children to the ceremony – he had thought it better not to interrupt his two sons’ schooling at Harvard. Bardeen replied that next time he would bring them all three. At the evening banquet the three scientists met again after more than five years and reminisced about their early days at Bell Labs – but the magic had gone.

In 1972, Bardeen, together with Cooper and Schrieffer, received his second Nobel, this time “for their jointly developed theory of superconductivity, usually called the BCS-theory.” Bardeen has been the only person in history to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in Physics. This time he brought all his children to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

In 1974 Bardeen was inducted in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. In 1990, LIFE Magazine listed him as one of the "100 Most Influential Americans of the Century." The U.S. honored him with a postage stamp issued in March 2008.

John Bardeen died of a heart attack on January 30, 1991. He was survived by his wife Jane, his three children and six grandchildren. Following his death, the Chicago Tribune wrote in its editorial on February 3, 1991: “Mr. Bardeen shared two Nobel Prizes and won numerous other honors. But what greater honor can there be when each of us can look all around us and everywhere see the reminders of a man whose genius has made our lives longer, healthier and better.”

© Wobbe Vegter, 2008

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