Walter Brattain, MA '26 (right) won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics along with fellow researchers William B. Shockley and John Bardeen for their work on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect.
print

Walter Brattain, MA '26

By UO Student Lili Wagner

“Let me first say that while I am very proud to be one of the recipients of the Nobel Award in Physics, I am nevertheless well aware that I am only a representative of many others, without whose work and effort I would not be here today,” Walter H. Brattain, MA ’26 began his Nobel Lecture December 11, 1956.

Born February 10, 1902 in Amoy, China, Brattain spent the majority of his adolescence in the Pacific Northwest before entering Whitman College, his parents' alma mater, in Washington as an undergraduate in 1920. Upon his graduation, Brattain enrolled at the University of Oregon to pursue a master of arts degree in physics, then entered the University of Minnesota where he earned his PhD in 1929.

Brattain began work with the storied Bell Labs as a member of the technical staff in 1929. Bell Laboratories, created in the nineteenth century by Alexander Graham Bell, has a history of scientific and technological accomplishment. Bell Labs is credited with the discovery and invention of the wave nature of matter, synthetic speech, the transistor, information theory, the solar cell, the Laser, echoes of the Big Bang, UNIX and the Internet, the picturephone, C++, and quantum computing, to name a few. Bell Labs has produced no fewer than eight Nobel Prize winners, including Brattain.

Brattain’s own contribution was his research, alongside fellow award winners William B. Shockley and John Bardeen, on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect. The three shared the 1956 Nobel Award in Physics for their work on the transistor, one of the fundamental building blocks of electronic devices, which is used every day in radios, calculators, computers, and other invaluable devices. The transistor, predecessor to modern technology and the microchip, was a crucial development early in the digital revolution.

"I certainly appreciate the honor," Brattain is quoted as saying at the time. "It is a great satisfaction to have done something in life and to have been recognized for it in this way. However, much of my good fortune comes from being in the right place, at the right time, and having the right sort of people to work with."

The Nobel committee considered the invention of the transistor, along with the discovery of the photo-effect at the free surface of a semiconductor, to be Brattain's chief contributions to solid state physics.

Brattain received an honorary doctor of science degree from Portland State University, Whitman College, Union College, and the University of Minnesota. In 1952 and 1955, he was awarded the Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute and the John Scott Medal respectively.

Brattain worked at Bell Labs until his retirement in 1967. In his later life, he returned to the Pacific Northwest where he taught as an adjunct professor at his alma matter, Whitman College. Whitman College provides Walter Brattain Scholarships in his honor to students "who have achieved high academic excellence in their college preparatory work."

Brattain died on October 13, 1987.