Brattain, Walter H. (Walter Houser), 1902-1987

Alternative names
Birth 1902-02-10
Death 1987-10-13

Biographical notes:

Major affiliations include: Bell Laboratories, NJ, USA, 1929-1967; Columbia University, New York, NY USA, 1942-1943; and Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA, USA, 1967-

From the description of Personal Papers. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 84185841

Physicist. Major affiliations include: Bell Laboratories, NJ, USA (1929-1967); Columbia University, New York, NY, USA (1942-1943); and Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA, USA, (1967-1987?).

From the description of Thesis, 1926. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78354803

Walter Houser Brattain was born on Feb. 10th, 1902 in Amoy, China. He was the son of Ross R. Brattain and Ottilie Houser, the oldest of their five children. Two of his sisters died very young; he spent his childhood in Washington State with his third sister, Mari Brattain, and his brother, R. Robert Brattain. The Brattain family had many Whitman College connections: Ross and Ottilie met at Whitman and Ross graduated from the college in 1901. Walter graduated from Whitman in 1924 with majors in Physics and Math under Professors Benjamin H. Brown (Physics) and Walter A. Bratton (Math).

There were three other physicists of note who graduated in Walter Brattain’s class: Walker Bleakney, E.J. Workman, and Vladimir B. Rojansky, with whom he collaborated over the years. The four of them were known as Whitman’s “Four Horsemen of Physics.” While a Whitman student, Brattain was passionate about math, an excellent tennis player and member of the Kirkman Club, a fraternal group.

After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree from Whitman, Brattain was awarded a Masters of Arts by the University of Oregon in 1926 and a Doctorate of Philosophy by the University of Minnesota in 1929. After completing his graduate studies, Brattain worked for the radio section of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., from 1927 to 1928. In 1929 he joined the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories and worked as a research physicist until his retirement in 1976. During World War II, he was associated for 22 months with the National Defense Research Committee at Columbia University, working on magnetic detection of submarines. Brattain was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University during the fall of 1952 and a visiting lecturer at Whitman College between 1962 and 1963, becoming a visiting professor between 1963 and 1972 and an adjunct professor from 1972 until 1976. He remained afterwards as a consultant at Whitman.

Brattain was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956, with Dr. John Bardeen and Dr. William B. Shockley, “for research on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect.” These three American physicists invented the transistor on December 23, 1947, at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company at Bell Laboratories. The transistor’s name derives from the descriptive phrase “transfer of signal through varsitor.” The transistor is a solid state device involved in connecting battery power to signal power. As a key element in amplifying small electrical signals and in processing of digital information, it is today an active component in all electronic systems. Brattain received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Portland University in 1952, from Whitman College and Union College in 1955, and from the University of Minnesota in 1957. In 1952 he was awarded the Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute, and in 1954 the John Scott Medal. The degree at Union College and the two medals were received jointly with Dr. John Bardeen, in recognition of their work on the transistor. In 1974, he was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Brattain was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Franklin Institute, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also a member of the commission on semiconductors of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and of the Naval Research Advisory Committee. At Whitman, he was nominated to membership in Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. He also served as an Overseer for the college.

The chief field of Brattain’s research was the surface properties of solids, as well as research directed at (1) thermionic emission and absorbed layers on tungsten, phospholipids bylayers or membranes rectification and (2) photo effects at semiconductor surfaces (ergo, cuprous oxide, silicon and germanium). Among his contributions are the discoveries of photo effect at the free surface of a semiconductor, the invention of the point-contact transistor jointly with Dr. John Bardeen, and shared research on piezoelectric frequency standards, magnetometers, blood clotting, and infrared detectors.

Walter Brattain married Dr. Keren Gilmore (chemist) in 1935 and had a son, William G. Brattain, in April, 1943. Keren died in April 1957. In May, 1958, he married Mrs. Emma Jane (Kirsch) Miller, a Whitman College alumna. He had three stepchildren and 10 grandchildren. Walter Brattain died on October 13, 1987, in Seattle, Washington, of Alzheimer’s disease.

From the guide to the Walter Brattain Family Papers, 1860-1990, 1901-1990, (Whitman College and Northwest Archives)


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