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Solid State

Brattain receives Nobel Prize

Walter Brattain on the solid state group, January 1964:

"A list came around on my desk of a new group that was being organized to do research in the solid state. The heads of this group were to be joint: S.O. Morgan and William Shockley. I read through this list and thought about it a minute and read through it quickly again, and I said, 'By golly! There isn't an s.o.b. in the group. This is some group.' Then after a minute I had a second thought that maybe I was the s.o.b. in the group." 


Part 1, 2 ,3

Walter Brattain

After World War II

Brattain spent the war years working on ways to detect submarines, and then returned to Bell Labs to find Kelly was reorganizing the researchers. Brattain was assigned to a new solid state group with Stanley Morgan and Bill Shockley at the head. John Bardeen, a friend of Brattain's brother Robert, joined the group as well. Bardeen's skill was in theory, while Brattain's was in experimenting. The two men soon learned to work together beautifully Bardeen would watch Brattain conduct an experiment, and then offer hypotheses about the results. 

The First Transistor 

The close relationship between Brattain and Bardeen paid off in what has become known as the "Miracle Month." For four weeks the two men came up with one great idea after another. Over the month they built several devices each one a little better than the last and it all came together on Tuesday, December 16. Brattain sat down at their latest attempt to build an amplifier. He turned on the voltage and for once everything seemed to work just right. "This thing's got gain!" Brattain said to no one in particular. That meant amplification.

Rifts in the Lab 

"Later in life, Brattain would always say to people who really knew him well, that he really hated that photo." Michael Riordan, author Crystal Fire 

After the point-contact transistor was built, a clash of personalities got the better of what had been a well-tuned research group. The fight was over just how much credit Shockley would receive. He was the team leader, but he worked on his own research at home and left Bardeen and Brattain alone. A famous company publicity photo of the three men shows how skewed the relationships were: Shockley sat at center stage in front of the microscope as if he had done the critical experiments. It was Brattain's laboratory bench and Brattain's equipment, but Brattain stood behind his boss, as if Shockley had really done the work. In fact, management at Bell Labs insisted that Shockley appear in every publicity picture. He was the head of the group and deserved to be there, the lab management felt. But they kept his name off the patent. That did not make Brattain or Bardeen feel any better about Shockley.

Over the next few years, Brattain continued to work in Shockley's transistor group, but usually wasn't invited to work on the most exciting research. He soon stopped reporting to Shockley of his own accord, and eventually demanded that he be transferred to another group altogether. Much happier away from Shockley, Brattain remained at Bell until he retired in 1967. 

Walter Brattain shows his parents around the lab after the invention of the transistor was announced

The Nobel Prize 

At 7 AM, Thursday, November 1, 1956, Brattain was at home when he got a phone call from a reporter. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor. He was soon swamped by the media. Later that morning he attended a meeting in the labs' Murray Hill auditorium. As he walked into the room, everyone spontaneously stood up and began to clap. It brought tears to his eyes. Later he wrote: "What happened there is a matter of record, except possibly the extreme emotion that one feels on receiving the acclamation of one's colleagues and friends of years, knowing full well that one could not have accomplished the work he had done without them, and that it was really only a stroke of luck that it was he and not one of them." 

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Walter Brattain in 1964 on how important he realized their discovery was:
"It is of interest to those that ask whether we knew how important this was, that the evening of the first day, when John had come in and suggested the geometry, I told my riding group that night, going home, that I felt that I had that day taken part in the most important experiment I had ever taken part in in my life. And the next evening going home with them I had to swear them to secrecy."


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

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