Walter Houser Brattain

“It is of interest to those that ask whether we knew how important this was that the evening of the first day, when John [Bardeen] had come in and suggested the geometry, I told my riding group that night, going home, that I felt that I had that day taken part in the most important experiment I had ever taken part in my life. And the next evening going home with them I had to swear them to secrecy.” (Walter Brattain in a 1964 interview, recounting events of the day the transister was born)

Walter Houser Brattain was born on February 10, 1902, in Amoy, China. He was the son of Ross Brattain and Ottilie Houser who, shortly after their marriage, had left for China where Ross had a job as a science & maths teacher. Shortly after Walter’s birth his parents decided to return to the U.S. where they owned a cattle farm in the state of Washington. This is where the young Brattain grew up.

In 1920 he registered at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where he studied physics and mathematics, the only subjects he claimed to enjoy and excel in. After he received his degree in 1924, he went to the University of Oregon for his masters which he received in 1926. For his doctoral studies he went to the University of Minnesota where he received his Ph.D. in physics in 1929.

In 1928 he joined the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., where he was employed as an engineer in their radio division, but he soon wanted to go back to the field of physics which interested him much more. In 1929 he applied for a position at the Bell Telephone Laboratories and was accepted.

Bell Labs

Bell Telephone Laboratories was also known as Bell Laboratories, AT&T Bell Laboratories or even shortened to Bell Labs. Bell Labs was founded in 1925 as a separate research division within AT&T – the American Telephone & Telegraph Company which had its origin in the Bell Telephone Company. It was tasked to design and support new and existing Bell equipment, and a small group of scientists were dedicated to doing basic research. Bell Labs would become one of the best hi-tech research laboratories in the world and would produce a long list of revolutionary discoveries, of which the invention of the transistor by the team Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain probably has been the most important one. Of note in the field of computers are technological innovations like:

        ● 1925 – first facsimile (fax) transmission
        ● 1956 – first transatlantic telephone cable between Scotland and Newfoundland
        ● 1958 – discovery of the laser by Arthur Schawlow & Charles Townes
        ● 1969 – Dennis Ritchie & Ken Thompson create the UNIX operating system
        ● 1970 – Dennis Ritchie develops the “C” programming language
        ● 1980 – the first single-chip 32-bit microprocessor is demonstrated
        ● 1983 – Bjarne Stroustrup develops the C++ programming language
        ● 1990 – the first wireless local area network (WaveLAN) is developed

Notice the misspelt surname

Bell Labs had been in existence for only four years when Brattain joined it, and it enabled him to immerse himself in the field he loved most, physics, where he studied the surface properties of solids. He started with experimenting with copper-oxide and tried to design a solid-state amplifier. Until then the amplifier effect – to amplify electrical signals – had been carried out by the vacuum tube. Although Brattain was excellent in making experiments work, his attempts with copper-oxide bore no fruit. He also tried other solid state materials like silicon, with equally disappointing results.

In 1936 William Shockley joined Bell Labs and also started research in a solid-state amplifier. John Bardeen would only join Bell Labs in 1945.

During World War II, Brattain worked on ways to detect submarines, but he returned to Bell Labs in 1945. By then, the ambitious William Shockley had become director of the semiconductor division and was heading a new team to investigate and produce a practical sold-state amplifier. Brattain was assigned to the newly established Shockley group and was joined by newcomer John Bardeen, who even shared his office. The two scientists would soon become good friends. Of the three people – Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen – Brattain was the most practical scientist. He loved working with his hands, building and conducting experiments. Bardeen was the theoretician. If Brattain’s experiments didn’t work, it was often Bardeen who could explain why not or at least offer hypotheses. The two made an excellent team. Shockley was “the boss” to whom both Bardeen and Brattain reported. Although Shockley also came up with ideas, it was Brattain who built the devices and made them ultimately work.


The transistor

The breakthrough came in December 1947 when their solid-state amplifier, using germanium, worked. The tiny device was called a transistor – a contraction of the word transfer-resistor to indicate it was a resistor or semiconductor device that amplified electrical signals as they were transferred through it. Although the first version – a point-contact transistor – was difficult to manufacture on a large scale, subsequent versions – the junction transistor – were developed in 1951 and were much improved. The new transistor would soon replace the old vacuum tube. Where the vacuum tube often had been unreliable, requiring special cooling due to its heat-generation and was a much bulkier device, the new transistor was tiny (about half an inch long), generated virtually no heat, was far more reliable and could be mass-produced at substantially lower cost per unit.

It would take a few years before the general public noticed any impact of the new invention. This changed when in 1954 the first transistors for radios were manufactured.

A small Japanese company, Sony, invested heavily in the new technology and soon its small transistor radios hit the streets in Japan and the U.S. Where in the past a radio was a quite bulky piece of furniture due to the vacuum tubes inside, the much smaller – and portable(!) – transistor radio was an immediate hit with the youth in the Western world. Although Brattain welcomed this use of his technology, he was less enamored with transistor radios playing loud rock & roll music on the streets. Sony soon extended the use of transistors to manufacture small TVs as well.

The first generation of computers – built during and just after World War II – were all based on vacuum tubes. The newly invented transistors would signal the second generation of computers. Within ten years after making its appearance, the transistor had replaced the vacuum tube, not only in computers but in all sorts of electronic equipment.

“I hated that photo.”                                                           

The split

Soon after the new invention was published, the first personal differences within the team surfaced. At issue was the part that Shockley had played in the actual discovery. Although Shockley was the head of the group, it was Brattain who had built the actual device, while having Bardeen as his soundboard, theoritician, problem solver and proposer of ideas, options and alternatives. Shockley’s role was apparently considered less important by his colleagues as he carried out his own research mostly in isolation and separated from the other two team members. Despite this, Shockley fully shared in the credit. Bell Labs insisted that Shockley was to appear in all publicity pictures. A famous picture (shown above) of the team at that time illustrates this situation. The picture shows Shockley in the centre sitting at a work bench, behind a microscope. Behind his left shoulder Brattain is standing and watching, while Bardeen stands behind his right shoulder. The whole picture suggests that Shockley was at the centre of the discovery, but the work bench, the instruments and equipment on it were all Brattain’s. The same picture has been used for the design of the 1998 Marshall Islands stamp commemorating the historic event, but showing the same team composition from a slightly different angle.

In their 1997 book Crystal Fire – the Birth of the Information Age authors Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson state that later in his life, Brattain would always say to the people who really knew him well, that he really hated that photo. It comes as no surprise that Brattain and Bardeen got a bit upset with the way things had developed and the team’s interpersonal relationships soon soured.

Interestingly, Bell Labs did not even include Shockley’s name in the patent application for the transistor. Bardeen quietly left Bell Labs in 1951 and Brattain slowly stopped his reporting to Shockley and got himself reassigned to another department within Bell Labs.

The international scientific symbol for a transistor is shown here in blue on this 1979 Russian postal stationery.

The ultimate recognition

In 1956 all three scientists were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics “for their research in semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect.” Brattain received a number of honorary doctorates and was inducted to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

Brattain retired from Bell Labs in 1972 and returned to Walla Walla to lecture at his alma mater. He died of Alzheimer’s disease on October 13, 1987, in a nursing home in Seattle.

The first commercially available computer using the new transistor technology was the UNIVAC (from UNIVersal Automatic Computer), produced by Remington-Rand in 1956. The computer was built by John Mauchly and Pres Eckert. A photograph of the UNIVAC – taken by John Mauchly – can be found on the Bosnia & Hercegovina sheetlet commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first UNIVAC computer. Without Brattain’s involvement in the invention of the transistor our modern computer technology would not have been where it is today.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2008

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