"Walter was a very good experimental physicist. He could put things together out of sealing wax and paper clips, if you wish, and make things work." -- John Pierce Bell Labs co-worker.
"Walter and I spent our early youth on the cattle ranch in eastern Washington, and of course this kind of a life teaches you an independence which stays with you for the rest of your life." -- Robert Brattain, March 1998
"Shockley came to me one day and said that he thought that if we made a copper oxide rectifier in just the right way, that maybe we could make an amplifier. And I listened to him. I had a good esprit de corps with him, and so after he explained, I laughed at him and told him that Becker and I had been all through this and that this sounded exactly like the same thing, and that I was quite sure it wouldn't work. But I said, 'Bill, it's so damned important that if you'll tell me how you want it made, if it's possible, we'll make it that way. We'll try it.' The unit was made to his specifications and it was tested and the result was nil." -- Walter Brattain, January 1964
Walter Brattain had the hands. Give him the direction and he could build anything. He was a solid physicist who had a good understanding of theory, but his strength was in physically constructing experiments. Working with the ideas of William Shockley and John Bardeen, Brattain's hands built the first transistor.
A Home on the Range
His father, Ross, and mother, Ottilie, married just after they'd graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Ross got a job teaching science and math in China, and Walter Houser Brattain was born on February 10, 1902 in Amoy. They didn't stay abroad long: by 1903, the Brattains were back in Washington. Walter spent most of his youth on a large cattle ranch just south of the Canadian border. When he wasn't doing school work, Walter had little time for anything besides helping out on the ranch. He was a cowboy.
Physics Was the Only Thing He Was Good At
In the fall of 1920, Brattain entered Whitman. He claimed he majored in physics and math because they were the only subjects he was good at.
Brattain attended college at a turning point in American science, when physics was being transformed. Older students would have been expected to travel to Europe for a first-class physics education, but Brattain was in the first wave of those who could do just as well in the US.
Encouraged by his professor Benjamin Brown to continue his studies, Brattain went on to the University of Oregon for his Masters and to the University of Minnesota for a Ph.D.. Brattain's first job out of graduate school was at the National Bureau of Standards as a radio engineer, but after a year there he wanted to get back to physics. At an American Physical Society meeting, he was about to ask his thesis advisor, John Tate, for help. But before he said anything, Tate introduced him to Joseph Becker of Bell Labs. "By the way, Becker is looking for a man," he said, and Brattain quickly responded, "I'm interested!" Becker asked for only one qualification: he wanted to make sure that Brattain was the kind of guy who'd stand up to his superiors when necessary. Brattain, raised on a working ranch with a rifle in his saddle bags to shoot rattlesnakes, laughed. On August 1, 1929, Brattain moved to Becker's lab in New York City.
An Off the Cuff Explanation
Working with Becker, Brattain spent most of his time studying copper-oxide rectifiers. The pair thought they might be able to make an amplifier by putting a tiny metal grid in the middle of the device, similar to the design of vacuum tubes. A few years later, William Shockley came to him with a similar idea. Neither contraption actually worked.
Working with crystals eventually paid off. On March 6, 1940, Brattain and Becker were called into the office of Bell's President, Mervin Kelly. There they saw Russell Ohl 's mysterious crystal that increased voltage whenever light was flashed on it. It turned out to be a very crude P-N junction, but no one knew it at the time. Brattain, who at first thought it was a practical joke, gave an off-the-cuff explanation that electrical current was being generated at a barrier inside. That theory turned out to be true. Kelly was suitably impressed.
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