Walter H. Brattain

Physicist Walter H. Brattain was known for having created the transistor, a landmark invention for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956.


Born on February 10, 1902, in China, Walter H. Brattain was an experimental physicist who co-invented the transistor, a breakthrough in electronics. The invention came as a result of AT&T's request to improve upon their telephone service. By amplifying the elecritcity needed for telephone service with the transistor, as opposed to using inefficient vacuum tubes, Brattain is believed to have helped introduce the "Information Age." Brattain, in addition to his team, received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. He died on October 13, 1987, in Seattle.

Early Life

Physicist Walter Houser Brattain was born on February 10, 1902, in Amoy, China, where his father was teaching. In 1903, the family returned to their native state of Washington, where Walter H. Brattain grew up on a cattle ranch. Like both his parents, Brattain attended Whitman College where he majored in physics. He went on to receive his M.S. in physics from the University of Oregon and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. In 1928, he began working at the National Bureau of Standards as a radio engineer. He left a year later to join Bell Laboratories.

Scientific Breakthrough

Brattain's research was focused on the surface properties of solids and the variations of the atomic structure of a material's interior and exterior. He worked to understand the properties of semiconductors, materials that can conduct more or less electricity transiently. During World War II, he spent two years working on technology to detect submarines.

After the war, AT&T desired to expand and improve their telephone service. At the time, service was dependent on unreliable vacuum tubes, necessary to amplify the electric current by controlling electron flow. AT&T consulted Bell Laboratories to innovate the system, and research leader William B. Shockley recruited Brattain and John Bardeen to join the project.

The men changed the face of modern technology. In 1947, the team discovered a way to replace the vacuum tube by placing a treated wafer of germanium (a semiconductor) between two gold point contacts and using a plastic triangle wrapped in gold ribbon to amplify the electricity. The resulting invention was dubbed a point-contact transistor. The device was perfected and ultimately, the transistor was smaller, more dependable and generated lower levels of heat than the vacuum tube. Considered the predecessor of modern electronics and the microchip, the transistor ushered in the "Information Age." The men shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery in 1956.

Personal Life

Brattain continued research at Bell Laboratories until his retirement in 1967. He relocated to Washington and taught as an adjunct professor at Whitman College. He was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1935, Brattain married Dr. Karen Gilmore. She died of cancer 14 years after couple's first son, William, was born. In 1958, Brattain remarried Emma Jane Miller. Brattain died of Alzheimer's disease on October 13, 1987, in Seattle, Washington.

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