Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

"John Bardeen was the most intelligent human being that I've ever met" – Bob Brattain

John and his siblings, 1917

"John is the concentrated essence of the brain," Althea once wrote to her father-in-law. 

"It was on the way between my high school and home so that I would stop and see her on the way home from school. I remember stopping in to see her on the day before she died. I thought she looked well that day and cheerful and I was shocked to hear the next day that she had passed away. I didn't realize how seriously ill she was." –John Bardeen, May 12,1977 , Childhood recollection of his mother.

Part 1,( 2, 3 )

John Bardeen

"Whispering John"

Early Heartbreak

John Bardeen was born on May 23, 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the second son of Dr. Charles Russell Bardeen, dean of the University of Wisconsin medical school, and Althea Harmer Bardeen, a well-educated young woman who had studied art and design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Bardeen was a brilliant kid right from the beginning -- his parents decided to move him from third grade up into junior high. 

When Bardeen was 12, his mother became seriously ill with cancer. Thinking he was helping his kids, Dr. Bardeen downplayed the seriousness of her illness. John didn't realize she was dying, and was stunned when it happened. His father quickly married his secretary, Ruth Hames, wanting to give his young children the family he thought they needed. It didn't help Bardeen much -- he was heartbroken and distracted, barely passing French that year. Nevertheless, he made it through high school and entered the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1923 at the age of 15, where he majored in engineering.

Not Like His Father

John Bardeen stayed on at the University of Wisconsin to get his Master's degree in electrical engineering. He chose engineering because it had lots of the math he loved, but it also had good job prospects. He didn't want to be an academic, like his father. By the time he graduated, however, the Depression had struck and jobs were scarce. Bardeen was courted briefly by Bell Labs, but a hiring freeze closed that door. 

One of the few companies still hiring was Gulf Oil Company, and Bardeen took a job there as a geophysicist. He was there for three years, but he always kept an eye on advances in the world of physics. His heart wasn't in geology -- the time had come to go back to school. 

Bardeen Becomes a Physicist 

He went to Princeton to get his Ph.D. in mathematical physics. It was there that Bardeen first got involved with the studies of metals. He attended Princeton at an exciting time, when scientists like Eugene Wigner and Frederick Seitz were using the new theories of quantum mechanics to help understand how semiconductors worked. These theories would help Bardeen later during the invention of the transistor. He finished his dissertation in 1935. 

Bardeen went on to Harvard where he was hired as a Junior Fellow with a salary of $1,500 a year, plus living expenses -- a sum considered quite substantial at the time. Life in Cambridge allowed him to spend more time with his sweetheart Jane Maxwell, a biologist who taught at a girls high school near Boston. They were married in 1938. After Harvard, Bardeen worked at the University of Minnesota until World War II broke out, then he transferred to the Naval Ordnance Labs. During the war, he helped the Navy develop ways to protect U.S. ships and submarines from magnetic mines and torpedoes. 

NEXT- Bardeen at Bell Labs

Copyright 1999, ScienCentral, Inc, and The American Institute of Physics. No portion of this web site may be reproduced without written permission. All Rights Reserved.