John Bardeen (John Bardeen)

John Bardeen

John Bardeen was born in Madison, Wisconsin on May 23, 1908.  Bardeen attended the University High School at Madison for several years, but graduated from Madison Central High School in 1923. He graduated from high school at age fifteen, even though he could have graduated several years earlier. His graduation was postponed due to taking additional courses at another high school and also partly because of his mother’s death. He entered the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1923. While in college he joined the Zeta Psi fraternity. He raised the needed membership fees partly by playing billiards. He was initiated as a member of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. He chose engineering because he didn’t want to be an academic like his father and also because it is mathematical. He also felt that engineering had good job prospects.

Bardeen received his B.S. in electrical engineering in 1928 from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He graduated in 1928 despite taking a year off during his degree to work in Chicago. He had taken all the graduate courses in physics and mathematics that had interested him, and, in fact, graduated in five years, one more than usual; this allowed him time to also complete a Master’s thesis, supervised by Leo J. Peters. He received his M.S. in electrical engineering in 1929 from Wisconsin.

Bardeen stayed on for some time at Wisconsin furthering his studies, but he eventually went to work for Gulf Research Laboratories, the research arm of the Gulf Oil Corporation, based in Pittsburgh. From 1930 to 1933, Bardeen worked there on the development of methods for the interpretation of magnetic and gravitational surveys. He worked as a geophysicist. After the work failed to keep his interest, he applied and was accepted to the graduate program in mathematics at Princeton University.

Bardeen studied both mathematics and physics as a graduate student, ending up writing his thesis on a problem in solid-state physics, under physicist Eugene Wigner. Before completing his thesis, he was offered a position as Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University in 1935. He spent the next three years there, from 1935 to 1938, working with Nobel laureate physicist John Hasbrouck van Vleck and to-be laureate Percy Williams Bridgman on problems in cohesion and electrical conduction in metals, and also did some work on level density of nuclei. He received his Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Princeton in 1936.

In October 1945, John Bardeen began work at Bell Labs. Bardeen was a member of a Solid State Physics Group, led by William Shockley and chemist Stanley Morgan. Other personnel working in the group were Walter Brattain, physicist Gerald Pearson, chemist Robert Gibney, electronics expert Hilbert Moore and several technicians. He moved his family to Summit, New Jersey.

The assignment of the group was to seek a solid-state alternative to fragile glass vacuum tube amplifiers. Their first attempts were based on Shockley’s ideas about using an external electrical field on a semiconductor to affect its conductivity. These experiments mysteriously failed every time in all sorts of configurations and materials. The group was at a standstill until Bardeen suggested a theory that invoked surface states that prevented the field from penetrating the semiconductor. The group changed its focus to study these surface states, and they met almost daily to discuss the work. The rapport of the group was excellent, and ideas were freely exchanged. By the winter of 1946 they had enough results that Bardeen submitted a paper on the surface states to Physical Review. Brattain started experiments to study the surface states through observations made while shining a bright light on the semiconductor’s surface. This led to several more papers (one of them co-authored with Shockley), which estimated the density of the surface states to be more than enough to account for their failed experiments. The pace of the work picked up significantly when they started to surround point contacts between the semiconductor and the conducting wires with electrolytes. Moore built a circuit that allowed them to vary the frequency of the input signal easily and suggested that they use glycol borate (gu), a viscous chemical that didn’t evaporate. Finally they began to get some evidence of power amplification when Pearson, acting on a suggestion by Shockley, put a voltage on a droplet of gu placed across a P-N junction.

On December 23, 1947, Bardeen and Brattain—working without Shockley—succeeded in creating a point-contact transistor that achieved amplification. By the next month, Bell Labs’ patent attorneys started to work on the patent applications.  Bell Labs’ attorneys soon discovered that Shockley’s field effect principle had been anticipated and patented in 1930 by Julius Lilienfeld, who filed his MESFET-like patent in Canada on October 22, 1925.

Shockley took the lion’s share of the credit in public for the invention of transistor, which led to a deterioration of Bardeen’s relationship with Shockley. Bell Labs management, however, consistently presented all three inventors as a team. Shockley eventually infuriated and alienated Bardeen and Brattain, and he essentially blocked the two from working on the junction transistor. Bardeen began pursuing a theory for superconductivity and left Bell Labs in 1951. Brattain refused to work with Shockley further and was assigned to another group. Neither Bardeen nor Brattain had much to do with the development of the transistor beyond the first year after its invention.  The “transistor” (a combination of “transconductance” and “resistor”) was 1/50 as large as the vacuum tubes it replaced in televisions and radios and allowed electrical devices to become more compact.

By 1951, Bardeen was looking for a new job. Fred Seitz, a friend of Bardeen, convinced the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to make Bardeen an offer of $10,000 a year. Bardeen accepted the offer and left Bell Labs. He joined the engineering faculty and the physics faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1951. He was Professor of Electrical Engineering and of Physics at Illinois. His first Ph.D. student was Nick Holonyak (1954), the inventor of the first LED in 1962.

At Illinois, he established two major research programs, one in the Electrical Engineering Department and one in the Physics Department. The research program in the Electrical Engineering Department dealt with both experimental and theoretical aspects of semiconductors, and the research program in the Physics Department dealt with theoretical aspects of macroscopic quantum systems, particularly superconductivity and quantum liquids.

He was an active professor at Illinois from 1951 to 1975 and then became Professor Emeritus. In his later life, Bardeen remained active in academic research, during which time he focused on understanding the flow of electrons in charge density waves (CDWs) through metallic linear chain compounds. His proposals that CDW electron transport is a collective quantum phenomenon (see Macroscopic quantum phenomena) were initially greeted with skepticism. However, experiments reported in 2012 show oscillations in CDW current versus magnetic flux through tantalum trisulfide rings, similar to the behavior of superconducting quantum interference devices (see SQUID and Aharonov–Bohm effect), lending credence to the idea that collective CDW electron transport is fundamentally quantum in nature. (See quantum mechanics.) Bardeen continued his research throughout the 1980s, and published articles in Physical Review Letters and Physics Today less than a year before he died.

In 1956, John Bardeen shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with William Shockley of Semiconductor Laboratory of Beckman Instruments and Walter Brattain of Bell Telephone Laboratories “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”.  At the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, Brattain and Shockley received their awards that night from King Gustaf VI Adolf. Bardeen brought only one of his three children to the Nobel Prize ceremony. King Gustav chided Bardeen because of this, and Bardeen assured the King that the next time he would bring all his children to the ceremony. He kept his promise.  In 1957, John Bardeen, in collaboration with Leon Cooper and his doctoral student John Robert Schrieffer, proposed the standard theory of superconductivity known as the BCS theory.

In 1972, John Bardeen shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Leon N Cooper of Brown University and John Robert Schrieffer of the University of Pennsylvania “for their jointly developed theory of superconductivity, usually called the BCS-theory”.  Bardeen did bring all his children to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

This was Bardeen’s second Nobel Prize in Physics. He became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in the same field. He also became the third person out of only four to win two Nobel Prizes. The first two were Marie Skłodowska-Curie, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, and Linus Pauling, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. In 1980, Frederick Sanger won his second Nobel Prize in Chemistry and became the fourth person to win two Nobel Prizes.  Bardeen gave much of his Nobel Prize money to fund the Fritz London Memorial Lectures at Duke University.  Bardeen was also an important adviser to Xerox Corporation. Though quiet by nature, he took the uncharacteristic step of urging Xerox executives to keep their California research center, Xerox PARC, afloat when the parent company was suspicious that its research center would amount to little.

Bardeen died of heart disease at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1991. Although he lived in Champaign-Urbana, he had come to Boston for medical consultation. Bardeen and his wife Jane (1907–1997) are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin. They were survived by three children, James & William and Elizabeth Bardeen Greytak, and six grandchildren.

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  • May, 23, 1908
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  • Madison, Wisconsin


  • January, 30, 1991
  • USA
  • Boston, Massachusetts


  • Forest Hill Cemetery
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • USA

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