The invention of the transistor took place at Bell Labs, where Brattain worked closely with John Bardeen as part of the solid-state physics group headed by William Shockley. Brattain, Bardeen and Shockley shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for their combined efforts in the development of the transistor.
Brattain was born to Ross Brattain and Ottilie Houser on February 10, 1902, in Amoy, China, where the elder Brattain worked as a teacher. Not long afterwards the family relocated to the United States, where they owned a cattle ranch in the state of Washington. Later in life, the younger Brattain often made comparisons between cattle herding and organizing large groups of researchers. In 1920, he began taking classes at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, earning a B.S. degree in physics four years later. Brattain decided to continue his education, resulting in a M.S. from the University of Oregon in 1926 and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1929.
Immediately after completing his graduate degrees, Brattain accepted a position as a radio engineer at the National Bureau of Standards. He enthusiastically made the move to Bell Laboratories later that same year when Joseph Becker invited him to join his group there. From his early days at Bell, Brattain was heavily involved in research involving characteristics of the surfaces of solids (which are normally quite distinct from the properties of their interiors), thermionic emission, and the rectification of electric current.
As happened to most other scientists of the era, Brattain’s work changed focus during World War II (1939-1945). He began finding new and improved means of detecting submarines, carrying out his efforts as part of an association with the National Defense Research Council at Columbia University. After the war, Brattain returned to Bell Labs. The company was in the midst of considerable reorganization, resulting in Brattain’s placement in the new solid-state physics group. There his fruitful collaboration with John Bardeen began. The two are said to have worked together so harmoniously because Brattain’s forte was hands-on experimentation, while Bardeen’s was his analytical ability.
In November 1947, Brattain and Bardeen were particularly successful in their collaborative research, making repeated advances in their attempt to produce a working semiconductor amplifier. The following month they successfully built such a device, which became known as the point-contact transistor. The transistor opened up great possibilities for the miniaturization and improvement of electronics: Though electrically similar to a vacuum tube, it was much smaller and more reliable. Yet the point-contact transistor devised by Brattain and Bardeen found little commercial use because of the greater promise of a subsequent type of transistor, called the junction transistor, developed shortly after their own invention by the head of their group, William Shockley.
Despite the great success of the group, relations among its members were strained. Shockley felt that, due to his senior position, his name should be included on the patent for the point-contact transistor. Brattain and Bardeen disagreed, arguing that they had worked independently of Shockley, who, they said, was usually absent from the lab because he performed his own research at home. In the end, only Brattain’s and Bardeen’s names appeared on the patent. Still, Shockley appeared in a controversial series of publicity photos with the other researchers and considerable ill will remained. As a result, Bardeen soon left Bell Labs altogether. Brattain maintained his position there, but later requested transfer to another research group.
Brattain retired from Bell in 1967. He began teaching at Whitman College, ending his career at the same institution where it had begun with his official entry into the realm of physics. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Brattain received many other marks of distinction, including numerous honorary degrees, the Stuart Ballantine Medal and the John Scott Medal. He was also a member of many distinguished scientific societies and groups.
Brattain suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his later years. He passed away on October 13, 1987 in Seattle, Washington. The great American scientist had been married twice, first to Keren Gilmore, with whom he had one son, then, following her death, to Emma Jane Miller.