Walter Houser Brattain

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Walter Houser Brattain (February 10, 1902–October 13, 1987) was an American physicist at Bell Labs who, along with John Bardeen and William Shockley, invented the transistor. They shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention. He devoted much of his life to research on surface states.


Early life and education

He was born to Ross R. Brattain and Ottilie Houser in Amoy, China on February 10, 1902 and spent the early part of his life in Springfield, Oregon and Tonasket, Washington in the United States. He was raised in Tonasket, Washington on a cattle ranch owned by his parents, and earned his B.S. degree in physics and mathematics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Brattain earned that degree in 1924 and an M.A. degree from the University of Oregon in 1926. He then moved eastward, taking his Ph.D. degree in physics at the University of Minnesota in 1929. Brattain's advisor was John T. Tate Sr., and his thesis was on electron impact in mercury vapor. In 1928 and 1929 he worked at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., and in 1929 was hired by Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Brattain's concerns at Bell Laboratories in the years before World War II were first in the surface physics of tungsten and later in the surfaces of the semiconductors cuprous oxide and silicon. During World War II Brattain devoted his time to developing methods of submarine detection under a contract with the National Defense Research Council at Columbia University.

Career in physics

Following the war, Brattain returned to Bell Laboratories and soon joined the semiconductor division of the newly-organized Solid State Department of the laboratories. William Shockley was the director of the semiconductor division, and early in 1946 he initiated a general investigation of semiconductors that was intended to produce a practical solid state amplifier.

Crystals of pure semiconductors (such as silicon or germanium) are very poor conductors at ambient temperatures because the energy that an electron must have in order to occupy a conduction energy level is considerably greater than the thermal energy available to an electron in such a crystal. Heating a semiconductor can excite electrons into conduction states, but it is more practical to increase conductivity by adding impurities to the crystal. A crystal may be doped with a small amount of an element having more electrons than the semiconductor, and those excess electrons will be free to move through the crystal; such a crystal is an n-type semiconductor. One may also add to the crystal a small amount of an element having fewer electrons than the semiconductor, and the electron vacancies, or holes, so introduced will be free to move through the crystal like positively-charged electrons; such a doped crystal is a p-type semiconductor.

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