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Walter Brattain
in 1974 on Shockley's ideas for who should get credit for the transistor:

"He called both Bardeen and I in, shortly after the demonstration, and told us that sometimes the people who do the work don't get the credit for it. He thought then that he could write a patent, starting with the field effect, on the whole damn thing."

Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen

Clashing Egos to the End

Although many scientists contributed along the way, it was three men who really brought the transistor to life, and each played a different role: the thinker, the tinkerer, and the visionary. John Bardeen was the thinker, a man who could look at an event no one else comprehended and go beyond common understanding to explain it. Walter Brattain was the tinkerer, a builder who could put together any contraption asked. William Shockley was the visionary, a seer who predicted how important the transistor would be long before anyone else. All three were top-class scientists, and their unique skills brought together in one laboratory created the perfect environment for their grand invention. But their unique perspectives also made them ill fit to continue working together. They joined for a few years of brilliance and then went their separate ways due to a colossal clashing of egos.

The three met just after World War II, when Bell Labs charged Shockley with the job of building a solid state amplifier. Brattain and Bardeen were members of his team, and the two began a tight-knit collaboration—Brattain ran the experiments, Bardeen interpreted the results. Shockley was the overseer. He offered direction and made comments, but by and large he let the other two work by themselves. It was an ideal arrangement for maximum creativity, with no one stepping on the others' toes. But when they reached their goal of building a working transistor, the issue of who deserved the credit became muddled.

Shockley believed that since he had given the initial direction the idea for the transistor was wholly his. Shockley began a major campaign with the company's lawyers to patent the transistor exclusively under his own name. He called Bardeen and Brattain separately into his office and explained what he was doing. Brattain shouted at him: "There's more than enough glory in this for everybody!" Bardeen said nothing, but began to fume silently. The rift had begun.

Shockley truly believed the other two had betrayed him, had taken his ideas and received credit where none was due. To get some of his own back, Shockley conceived of a substantially better transistor within a month. That transistor, a junction transistor, was destined to have more commercial success than that first point-contact transistor ever would. As Shockley kept his lab working on his own ideas, he kept Bardeen and Brattain as far removed from the work as possible.

Bardeen would soon describe the situation as "intolerable." Feelings rose to a fever pitch of animosity as Shockley continued to claim sole responsibility for the transistor. A classic Bell Labs press photo shows Shockley seated at a microscope, with the other two behind him—as if Shockley had regularly sat down at a lab bench while Bardeen and Brattain merely watched. Brattain would later admit to hating that photo. The three could not continue to work together.

Brattain soon asked to be transferred to a different lab at AT&T, where he stayed until retiring to be a professor at Whitman College. Bardeen took a job elsewhere within a couple years—at the University of Illinois—where he could concentrate on physics theory and direct his own work instead of following someone else's lead. He and Brattain always kept in touch, often meeting up to play golf.

Shockley soon hit a wall at AT&T. He became paranoid, a micromanager, not nearly as effective as he once was. He left to form a semiconductor company in California called Shockley Semiconductor. The company is known both for being the first of its kind in what was to become Silicon Valley; and for never producing a viable commercial product—a situation for which Shockley's leadership was largely responsible.

The three men met up just a few other times in their lives, most notably in Stockholm to receive the 1956 Physics Nobel Prize for their joint invention. While Brattain and Bardeen spent much of the time there together, Shockley wasn't included in the group. But for one evening, the truth of Brattain's claim that there was enough glory here for everyone came true. Bumping into each other after the awards ceremony all three men spent a cordial evening together toasting their success.

And then they flew back to the U.S. to separate lives once more: Brattain the tinkerer to Bell Labs' experiments; Bardeen the thinker to tackle his next set of hypotheses (he would win a second Nobel for his superconductivity theories); Shockley the visionary to launch an entire new semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley—and never to get credit for a single product built.


Walter Brown debunks the myth created by the Bell Labs press photo:
"Bardeen was not at all a laboratory experimentalist. He was a theorist. And he was the guy that provided the theoretical ideas for Brattain. It was Brattain who went in the lab and wired up the stuff and put the pieces together. And Bardeen really didn't play a part in the laboratory scene at all. Their association was primarily outside the laboratory. Of course, there is the famous picture of Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley that's taken in Brattain's laboratory. But that really was not a very common—certainly having the three of them together would be very uncommon—but having Brattain and Bardeen together in the laboratory wouldn't have been, that wouldn't have ordinarily happened. It would have happened in Bardeen's office more than it would have been in Brattain's lab."


Resources: Walter Brattain interview by Lillian Hoddeson, copyright American Institute of Physics.


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