Brattain was born in China, and he grew up on his parents' cattle ranch in Washington state. In 1924 he graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, with a degree in physics and mathematics. He later received his Masters from the University of Oregon and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. After working for the United States National Bureau of Standards while in graduate school, Brattain joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1929. At Bell Labs he began studying semiconducting substances such as germanium and silicon, which had been used for years to rectify electrical currents , forcing them to flow in only one direction. In 1936 William Shockley (1910-1989) was hired by Bell Labs and joined Brattain in his semiconductor research.Their efforts, however, were interrupted by World War II, during which time Brattain conducted research on the magnetic detection of submarines.
Soon after the war was over, another scientist, John Bardeen, was added to Bell Labs research team, and together the three scientists studied how semiconductors could amplify, or increase, electrical current as well as rectify it.When Shockley's idea for a semiconducting device failed in tests, Bardeen explained that a layer of electrons between surfaces prevented the flow of electricity. With Bardeen's help, Brattain performed experiments in 1947 that demonstrated this concept for the first time, and, in the course of their research, Brattain, Bardeen, and Shockley developed the world's first point contact resistor, nicknamed the transistor by another Bell Labs researcher. The experimental device was placed between metallic contacts, and used germanium oxide as a semiconducting material. By making tiny changes in the current,Brattain was able to induce great variations in the power output. Brattain'sexperiments showed that the point-contact transistor could amplify electricalcurrent by a factor of fifty. This soon led to the development of an improved transistor that was more versatile and easier to mass-produce.
Although it took a few years to perfect the device, the transistor created arevolution in electronic and communications technology by serving as a replacement for the bulky vacuum tubes that had been used in early computers. Withthese smaller, more efficient transistors, scientists were able to design more complex equipment that used much less power to operate. Technology has since developed integrated circuits, which contain an entire electronic circuit on a single piece of semiconducting material such as a silicon wafer, or chip.
Brattain, Bardeen, and Shockley received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for their investigation of the properties of semiconductors. All three researchers were widely honored for their invention of the transistor, and Brattainwas elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1959. During the 1950s and1960s, he continued working on semiconductors and the transistor effect. After Brattain retired from Bell Labs in 1967, he accepted a post as physics professor at his alma mater, Whitman College.