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Walter Houser Brattain - a transistor worthy of a Nobel Prize

2021-02-10

Walter Houser Brattain

Walter Houser Brattain was born on February 10, 1902, in China. He was the son of American teachers. He studied at Whitman College, where he earned two degrees - in physics and mathematics. By his own admission, the reasoning behind the choice of these disciplines was prosaic and resulted from the fact that he was good only in these subjects, and he did not want to do something in which he was only average. He started working at Bell Labs, with which he was associated for most of his career and in where he made his greatest discoveries, thanks to a meeting with Joseph Becker at an American Physical Society event. Becker stated that there is only one requirement for employees. He wanted them to be able to challenge the supervisor when appropriate. As a ranch-raised cowboy, Brattain had no problem with that.

At Bell Labs, Brattain worked closely with John Bardeen (future two-time Nobel laureate), with whom they formed a very harmonious duo. Brattain excelled in experimental work, while Bardeen was a skilful theorist who was able to develop hypotheses and further ideas for research. In this way, the team was able to effectively amplify the electrical signal. The result of these joint efforts was the construction of the first working point contact transistor on December 16, 1947. The design was still being refined, including selecting the right materials. Finally, on December 23, the team presented their transistor to their colleagues. It consisted of a plastic triangle, a block of germanium, and gold contacts. These materials showed the best amplification effects at different frequencies.

It is not necessary to convince anyone associated with electronics about the importance of the discovery. It was a breakthrough compared to electron tubes used at that time, which enabled the miniaturization of devices and systems as we know them today. Not surprisingly, the team was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956. In addition to Brattain and Bardeen, William Shockley was also honoured, although he had played only a supervisory role.

After leaving Bell Labs, Brattain returned to Whitman College where he began teaching. In one of the interviews, he admitted that the only thing he regrets about the invention of the transistor is its use for rock ‘n’ roll music.

Just as it is difficult to overestimate the influence of transistors on the development of electronics, it is difficult to enumerate all the areas in which we encounter the aftermath of Brattain's invention today. Countless integrated circuits, both analogue (from audio amplifiers to operational amplifiers) and digital, have their origin in the invention of the transistor. The simplest example of the latter would be logic gates and logic circuits, still often used in simple applications thanks to their reliability and uncomplicated design. Another well-known transistor-based component is the NE 555 timer, possibly the most used integrated circuit in history.

However, these are just a few examples. The transistor has become the basis of modern electronics. It is used in processors and microcontrollers. Young enthusiasts of programmable electronics, enjoying the ease of Arduino or Raspberry Pi programming, actually still enjoy the benefits of Brattain's invention. Just like any user of a mobile phone or standard computer. If we looked at our everyday life under a microscope, we would also see the transistors present in our credit cards, monthly tickets, and even keycards. And let's not forget the most important thing. In the era of digitization, when we try to save almost all data in the form of bits, we use transistor based digital memories.

The transistor has led to computerization and automation, without which it is difficult to imagine the 21st century, but it doesn't stop there. The invention continues to evolve, taking new forms, such as the unipolar transistor. Upgrades, such as silicon carbide based components are constantly appearing on the market. This material allows for the production of power transistors extremely resistant to high currents and high temperatures. Such advances made it possible to build electric cars.

Transistors have undergone extreme miniaturization (today we often measure their size in nanometres) and we most often see them as parts of complex electronic circuits. However, let's not forget that the good old transistor still finds many uses. In the TME catalogue you can find thousands of these items. Some models (like the BC548) have been in continuous production since the 1960s. The circuits of LED light bulbs, chargers, power supplies, toys, industrial machines, and thousands of other products continue to incorporate components that (except for size) differ little from the concept presented by Walter Brattain in 1947. Today, on the inventor's birthday, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate his impact on our everyday life.

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