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Oral History Transcript — John Bardeen

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Interview with John Bardeen
by Lillian Hoddeson
at the University of Illinois
May 12, 1977
Oral history interviewee photo

Transcript

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LILLIAN HODDESON:

This is Lillian Hoddeson. Today's day is May 12, 1977, and I'm interviewing Professor John Bardeen in his office in Urbana, Illinois. John, when we spoke together last week, I mentioned two of my own research interests; the development of basic research, particularly solid-state research in industry, and the development of solid-state physics in America during the 1930's, 40's, and 50's. Your account of your participation in these events will provide excellent source material for my historical study of these developments. However, for the benefit of future historians of science who will read the transcripts of our discussion, I am not going to limit our interview to the particular developments in your life that interest me. I would like to begin by recording some facts that pertain to your early background. I see that you were born in 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of Charles Bardeen, who was a Professor and later Dean at the University of Wisconsin Medical School from 1907 to 1935. I suppose, therefore, that intellectual activities were stressed in your home and that you were fairly well off financially.

JOHN BARDEEN:

We were reasonably well off financially. My father's income was all we had to live on. We had five children altogether so I wouldn't say that we were really affluent. We were comfortable.

HODDESON:

Five children?

BARDEEN:

My father married twice. My mother had four children. She died of cancer when I was about twelve years old and then a year or so later my father remarried. One daughter, Ann, resulted from that marriage. She's the only one who took up father's profession of medicine. She's an M.D., a specialist in anesthesiology, practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of the three boys, none of us took up medicine. My younger sister Helen, who was the third child to be born, wanted to go into medicine but my father discouraged her because he thought women would have an expensive medical education and then get married and have a family and not really use it. I was interested to see that in the first class, which graduated from Wisconsin four-year medical college, in 1827, out of 25 students, six were women. He couldn't have discouraged them too much.

HODDESON:

What did your younger sister go into?

BARDEEN:

She went into nursing. She entered Yale Nursing School and married a doctor who graduated from Yale Medical School. He came from Canada, British Columbia. Donald Beech was his name. Not long after they moved out there, she came down with tuberculosis. They didn't have the drugs then that they do now. She died shortly after her first baby was born. We went out to see them on our honeymoon trip in 1938. We took an automobile trip out to the West. We stopped in Vancouver and saw them there. She was not well at that time. Not long after that she died which was very unfortunate.

HODDESON:

Indeed. Tell me about your brothers.

BARDEEN:

My older brother William went into business and during most of his life worked for the Armour meat packing company. He was originally working in the business office, accounting and so on. Then he went into sales. He worked in sales in several cities in Wisconsin and ended up in Rockwood, Illinois. He's retiring now. His last job was head of the branch office of the Armour Company in Rockford, which has since been closed.

HODDESON:

And your younger brother?

BARDEEN:

Tom married early. In those days it was thought that you should support your wife if you got married. He was very bright, interested in the same sorts of thing that I was. Electrical engineering, mathematics, physics. I was working at the Gulf Oil Company at the time he got his master's degree. He was working for his doctor's degree, but after he got married he decided he better get a job. So I helped him get a job at the Gulf Oil Company and he spent his career working as a geophysicist at Gulf Oil. He has had a very successful career there, from which he just recently retired. He was responsible for a great deal of their seismic instrumentation over the years.

HODDESON:

So he's been in Pittsburgh all these years?

BARDEEN:

Yes, for the most part. He now lives in Wyoming.

HODDESON:

And your mother?

BARDEEN:

My mother's name was Althea Harmer before she was married. She was an art teacher at the Drew Institute in Chicago, which later became part of the University of Chicago. Her specialty was Oriental Art, particularly Japanese Art, which was just coming to the notice of the West. Japan opened up to the West about 1860 or 70. Around the turn of the century, Japanese Art was to be a big thing, and she was interested in that.

HODDESON:

So I gather your scientific interest probably came from your father's side?

BARDEEN:

Yes, although my mother pushed intellectual development too.

HODDESON:

I read in Patrick Young's article [1] that your mother enrolled you in an experimental school because, he says, she was afraid the public schools were not good enough.

BARDEEN:

I started going to public school, spending three years, to the grade school in my neighborhood. Coming from the East where many people send their children to private schools, she had some distrust about public schools. Would I get enough intellectual stimulation there? The University High School at Wisconsin was somewhat similar to the University High School here at Illinois, at least as it was run some years ago. They had a combined seventh and eighth grade and then four years of high school. She put my older brother and me in that University High School. My brother had just graduated from fifth grade and skipped one grade. I had just graduated from third grade and so had to skip three grades.

HODDESON:

This must have been extremely difficult for you all the way through because you were always three years younger than everybody else.

BARDEEN:

Yes, I was a lot younger than other students which I think was a handicap socially. I did well in mathematics and science but only average in language.

HODDESON:

Did that tendency continue right through college?

BARDEEN:

I stayed at home. My friends before I went to University who were mostly children of my own age in the neighborhood. So it wasn't so much of a handicap at that time. My brother had friends who were a little bit older so of course I knew them too. Most of my friends were a little bit older that I was, but not as much as three years older.

HODDESON:

How much older is your older brother than you are?

BARDEEN:

Two years older. We started at the same time at the University High School.

HODDESON:

Then you moved on to Madison Central Public School which had additional math courses.

BARDEEN:

Yes, that was one reason. My brother decided to switch to the Madison Central High School. I would have graduated a year earlier if I had stayed at the University High School but I was a little leery about graduating so young. I could get extra courses by going to the Madison Central High School, an extra year of mathematics which I couldn't get at the University High School and also take up other courses and delay graduation by a year. I graduated when I was fifteen.

HODDESON:

Well, that's not all that young.

BARDEEN:

And then while I went to University, I was still living at home, so the adjustment happened while I still had friends who were about my own age. But at the University, I really had to make a transition to interact with contemporaries as far as the University went. I joined a fraternity.

HODDESON:

Was fraternity life influenced much by the fact that you were younger?

BARDEEN:

Well I didn't live at the fraternity. I lived at home and went out there for occasional meals. Sometimes I stayed there overnight. I knew the fraternity brothers well, but I didn't actually live at the fraternity, so I didn't take full part in the fraternity life.

HODDESON:

I gather you were well off into mathematics by this time? When was it clear to you that mathematics was definitely an important direction in your life?

BARDEEN:

Well, more or less the first time I went to University High School. I had a very good teacher in seventh and eighth grade. The teacher was from the department of education at the University, N.W. L. Hart, who is a co-author of the Wells and Hart series of mathematics texts, which were very popular. I think the series was started by the Wells, and then Hart took over. He edited them and then revised them to keep them up to date. He was about 33 then and he kept his series alive for abut 50 years; continually revising them. He was an exceptionally good teacher. He was author of the texts and was much above the average high school math teacher.

HODDESON:

What about other areas of the physical sciences?

BARDEEN:

I had good teachers in science too. I first took a course in general science from a person whose name was Davis.

HODDESON:

This was at the University High School?

BARDEEN:

Yes, and he was also a very good teacher. I took general science there. In high school I had biology, chemistry, and physics. However, I took physics at the Madison Central High School. But I think I had general science and geology at the University High School. Oh no, I took biology at the Central High, it must have been chemistry I took at University High School.

HODDESON:

Was it very clear by the time that you were at the Madison High School that you would go into a scientific career?

BARDEEN:

I was certainly headed toward mathematics and science.

HODDESON:

Did you do any work with radio or other such things as a high school student?

BARDEEN:

I did some work with cat's whisker radio detector, that most boys were working with at that time. Some boys got as far as putting in vacuum tubes in their amplifiers but I never got that far. My main project in high school days was doing chemistry in my basement laboratory. I got interested in that by reading a book on Creative Chemistry written by Slosson. During the first World War we were shut off from importing dyes from Germany; the organic chemists in this country had learned how to produce the dyes. And that was described in this book. So I got interested in how dyes were made and I made some. I dyes materials, did some experiments on ejecting dyes in eggs, seeing now you get colored chickens (laughter) and things of that sort. Nothing too elaborate.

HODDESON:

Was the book you mentioned written for younger people or for general readers?

BARDEEN:

It was a general popular text. No it wasn't a text, it was just a book.

HODDESON:

Did you buy that book yourself, or did your mother pick it up for you?

BARDEEN:

I probably bought it for myself. I don't remember. Maybe in taking chemistry I learned about it. I do remember being stimulated by the book.

HODDESON:

Your mother passed away while you were in the last year at Madison Central High School.

BARDEEN:

I was twelve years old so I was then still going to the University High School.

HODDESON:

Did that cause you to take time off from your high school work? It must have been a tremendous shock. You were so young.

BARDEEN:

It must have been very difficult for her, leaving four children behind. She had some friends from her University of Chicago days and she went down to live with them for a while and I went down to visit her there. That must have been the summer because we weren't losing any school from it. Then she came back and spent her last days at the University Hospital. It was on the way between my high school and home so that I would stop and see her on the way home from school. I remember stopping in to see her on the day before she died. I thought she looked well that day and cheerful and I was shocked to hear the next day that she had passed away. I didn't realize how seriously ill she was.

HODDESON:

It's good that you were able to see her just before she left, that she was nearby. After a period, your father remarried; he married Ruth Hames. That must have been a difficult adjustment.

BARDEEN:

It must have been difficult for her and also for the children. I spent the summer after she died with some relative in Michigan. My younger brother and sister went to Syracuse and stayed with my aunt who was living with my grandfather in Syracuse. So we got along through the summer that way. We had hired help at home, a housekeeper. My father married Ruth Hames about a year later and she looked after us very well, but I'm sure it must have been a difficult job for her. She not only had four children to look after, but had a daughter herself a year or two after the marriage. It was rather a difficult job for her. She's in her mid-eighty's now. She lives in Milwaukee. She got married again just after the War to a man she met when she was a student at the University many years earlier. He had never gotten married; his name is Ken McCauley, who was an editorial writer for the Milwaukee Journal. He's about the same age as my stepmother, mid-eighties. She's getting rather frail and declining but he never seems to change. He's just as alert and healthy as he's ever been.

HODDESON:

You graduated high school at age fifteen in 1923 and then made the decision to go to the University of Wisconsin. Were there other choices?

BARDEEN:

Well I think that was pretty well set, partly for financial reasons and partly because of my age. I thought best to go to the local University. I took electrical engineering because I had heard that that used a lot of mathematics.

HODDESON:

Eventually you worked with Van Vleck, toward your master's degree. Is that correct?

BARDEEN:

Well, I didn't work with him; I took a course under him. My master's degree was in electrical engineering. He was in physics.

HODDESON:

What courses did you take with Van Vleck?

BARDEEN:

I took a course in Quantum Mechanics in 1928 when I was a graduate student. I started college in 1923 and took a lot of extra courses in mathematics. As an undergraduate, I did a great deal of independent study in mathematics, much under the guidance of Warren Weaver, who was later head of the Rockefeller Foundation.

HODDESON:

How did Warren Weaver happen to be your teacher?

BARDEEN:

He was then a young professor in the Mathematics Department at the University. I started taking a regular freshman course in analytical geometry given by a teaching assistant at the university. I started taking the regular course of first year math for electrical engineers which started out at that time with analytical geometry. But soon I started studying on my own, learning calculus, because I knew most the things that were being taught in the elementary course. I took advanced courses with Van Vleck's father and one with Warren Weaver. I took many other courses in mathematics and also did a lot of studying on my own.

HODDESON:

Was Van Vleck's father a regular mathematics professor at Wisconsin?

BARDEEN:

Yes, his father was a regular mathematics professor at Wisconsin?

HODDESON:

And then young Van Vleck came too and taught quantum mechanics?

BARDEEN:

He came later; he wasn't there at that time. I was an undergraduate. He took his Ph.D. from Harvard and then went to the University of Minnesota where he stayed a couple of years. He came to the University of Wisconsin in 1928 and taught a course in quantum mechanics. I had, earlier when I was an undergraduate, also taken a lot of graduate courses in physics as well as in mathematics.

HODDESON:

What did you take, the basic courses such as optics, thermodynamics, mechanics, and so on?

BARDEEN:

There were certain required courses that the electrical engineers were required to take. I took those and then also extra courses at the graduate level that were being offered. I remember one course that was given by Debye. He was visiting Wisconsin for a semester and he gave a course in statistical mechanics. It was a very stimulating course.

HODDESON:

What did he cover in that course?

BARDEEN:

Kinetic theory and statistical mechanics.

HODDESON:

I suppose there was not much quantum theory in this Debye statistical mechanics course.

BARDEEN:

No, there wasn't much quantum theory in that course.

HODDESON:

Did he cover any of his own research in that course?

BARDEEN:

No, I don't think so. It was mainly just a basic course. Kinetic theory and statistical mechanics. I think I still have the notes from that course.

HODDESON:

Please don't throw them away. Historians will find them very interesting.

BARDEEN:

He was of course an excellent teacher. He had everything very well organized.

HODDESON:

This was before you took quantum mechanics?

BARDEEN:

Yes, this was before I took quantum mechanics. That was one of the more stimulating courses I had. I took most of what was offered, either in my later undergraduate or graduate years. Another extra course I took was a year of German, which I thought I might need later when I went to graduate school. It threw my electrical engineering program out of kilter. I had to put off some of the required courses because I was taking German. There were many required courses in the junior and senior year at that time and few electives. I don't know if it's still true. You were supposed to spend a summer working in industry. Certain industries used to take summer students and the University had connections to them. I worked with the Western Electric Company in Chicago in the Inspection Development Department. That was the summer of 1926. Then I took a semester off also to work at Western Electric. I enjoyed the work there and being young I was in no hurry to graduate. Also other graduate courses I had taken in mathematics and physics caused my electrical engineering program to be thrown out of kilter, so I decided to stay out for a semester and continue to work in Chicago, which I did. So I was there for about 8 months altogether.

HODDESON:

What did you do there?

BARDEEN:

I worked developing methods for inspecting. When there were special things that were turned out in very small quantities we would be responsible for inspection tests.

HODDESON:

Did you have any interactions with Bell Laboratories in that period?

BARDEEN:

Not at that time. The job required more engineering than research, although it was not routine. It consisted of developing methods for inspection and inspecting non-routine items. There were always new problems coming up so it was interesting work.

HODDESON:

These were experimental problems?

BARDEEN:

Yes, they were largely experimental problems.

HODDESON:

So you got your hands into experimental work there.

BARDEEN:

Well, it was not ordinary experimental work. It was more designing tests to see whether production meets specification. After spending a semester at Western Electric, I returned to the University in the spring of 1927. My class graduated in 1927, but I didn't because I didn't have all the required courses completed. I spent an extra year and graduated in 1928. I took some graduate courses during the year then I stayed on as a graduate student in electrical engineering after that. I was there for two years beyond the B.S. degree.

HODDESON:

You also studied quantum mechanics with Dirac. Was this as an undergraduate?

BARDEEN:

That was in the summer of 1928, I believe. It was just before Van Vleck came from Minnesota. Dirac was in Madison for six weeks in the summer. He gave lectures in quantum mechanics which I took. His course followed pretty much what was in his book, published a little later.

HODDESON:

How did this impress you?

BARDEEN:

It was very stimulating. Very interesting. I enjoyed it. I thought of transferring to physics and doing research. I was never quite sure that that's what I really wanted to do. My graduate work was in electrical engineering. One problem was on calculating radiation from antennas. At that time, many people from the University and elsewhere were becoming interested in geophysics which had just opened up at that time.

HODDESON:

I have the name Leo J. Peters written down here.

BARDEEN:

Peters was one of those interested in geophysics. I did my master's thesis under him on the problem of electrical methods in prospecting in geophysics. The other problem, suggested by the head of the department, was on diffraction of electromagnetic waves. It related to the antenna design. Peters left in 1929 to go to work for the Gulf Oil Company. I stayed on another year at the University, mainly taking extra work, since I'd finished my master's thesis.

HODDESON:

On the diffraction of electromagnetic waves?

BARDEEN:

It was the other way around. When Peters was there, I worked on my master's thesis. I got my master's degree in '29 and I must have worked on the other problem in '29-'30.

HODDESON:

The prospecting problem?

BARDEEN:

No, on electromagnetic waves. I thought of going to Germany which was then the center of physics research.

HODDESON:

This was in 1929?

BARDEEN:

In 1930. The academic year, 1929-1930.

HODDESON:

Did you have a specific invitation to go to Germany at that time?

BARDEEN:

No. I didn't apply. I did apply for a Fellowship in Cambridge which I didn't get. That was the only Fellowship I applied for.

HODDESON:

Where were you thinking of going in Germany?

BARDEEN:

On one of the main centers like Göttingen or Munich.

HODDESON:

Had you become informed in detail about the work that was going on at these centers?

BARDEEN:

I was pretty well informed through Van Vleck. Sommerfeld was at Munich.

HODDESON:

Were you already at this time aware of Sommerfeld's 1928 theory of metals?

BARDEEN:

It had just appeared. Sommerfeld had talked about electrons in metals at Wisconsin.

HODDESON:

Here in this country?

BARDEEN:

Yes, he was visiting during part of the year 1929-30. I think it was in the spring of 1930 that he visited Wisconsin. He talked about the electron theory of metals. I heard the lectures but I wasn't stimulated at that time to go into that field. But I was thinking about going to Germany to work on theoretical physics. I think my main strength was mathematics. I leaned towards mathematics and theoretical physics. Then Peters who had gone to Gulf Oil Company wanted me to join him there. And a recruiter from Bell Labs, Thornton Fry, who visited in the spring of 1930, was encouraging about a job at Bell Labs. So I decided to take a job.

HODDESON:

There were these two possibilities for you in 1930, Gulf and Bell Laboratories. And you chose Gulf because you knew Peters?

BARDEEN:

Oh, I chose because I didn't really have any choice. I may have chosen it anyway but between April of 1930 and the summer in June when I went out to visit, Bell cut out all new employment, except for those who had a fixed contract. They were not making any offers; in fact they didn't hire any new science employees, scientists or engineers between the spring of 1930 and 1936. But these were the days when geophysics was just opening up. It was an interesting field, the methods were being developed. I may have chosen that job anyway.

HODDESON:

What was the job that Bell at that time offered to you?

BARDEEN:

I think it was to work on antennas. The interest was in wave propagation and antennas. If I'd gone there I might have ended up working in that field. They had some very good people in the field.

HODDESON:

I'm surprised the job at Gulf was still open despite the depression.

BARDEEN:

It was one of the few places that were still hiring. Oil companies were still reasonably prosperous even in depression days. People had to buy gas to run their cars and geophysics was just opening up, so it was an expanding field. They did some hiring even after I arrived.

HODDESON:

Did you experience any restrictions due to the depression at Gulf?

BARDEEN:

No, they were expanding in terms of the numbers of employees and activities. I was working mainly on electromagnetic prospecting, and interpretation of magnetic surveys. But I also did some work on electrical methods and gravitational methods and seismic methods. Those were very interesting days. While I was there, I also participated in a seminar at Pitt (Univ. of Pittsburgh) Arthur Ruark, among others was there. Different people would report on current activities in theoretical physics. So I kept up my interest in that field by attending these seminars. They also had speakers from out of town.

HODDESON:

Do you recall any of the speakers at these seminars?

BARDEEN:

No. In about 1933 I decided that if I were going to stay in geophysics I would have to learn more geology and go in that general direction. I'd never studied geology. After some thought I decided to go into mathematics and theoretical physics, which was my real interest. I picked Princeton because the Institute for Advanced Study was just starting there at that time. There were a lot of famous mathematicians there and looked like the best place in the country to go. I had enough savings so I didn't need a fellowship.

HODDESON:

Would you call the work you were doing at Gulf entirely applied work, or was there a basic component to it?

BARDEEN:

I was trying to develop new methods of interpretation. They were applied problems in that you were given the survey of fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field as they vary over the earth and then you would try to infer from these what was causing the fluctuations and develop indirect methods of analysis. One may assume that the rocks that give rise to the magnetization are uniformly magnetized and then one can calculate what structure would give rise to the field observed on the surface. We worked out a direct way for going from the magnetic field observed to the structure below on the assumption of uniform magnetization. But of course the assumption of uniform magnetization is by no means valid. That is a big problem in the field. I also worked out what I think is more valuable, a way of estimating the depth to the basement of rocks which cause the variations in magnetic field. Sedimentary rocks generally don't have much magnetization. The field comes mostly from the basement rocks, and one can determine roughly the depth down to these rocks. If one doesn't know much about the area from a magnetic survey, one can get a rough idea of the geology and thickness of the sedimentary rocks. We developed methods for doing this. I was in charge of a small group on magnetic interpretation. We'd get the results in from the field and try and interpret them.

HODDESON:

Were you reading journals at that time or were you relying mainly on books?

BARDEEN:

This was a new field so there was not much in the literature. There was an article which Peters wrote and which was published I think in the late '40s describing the work that we did in the early '30s, 1930 to 1933. Peters was in charge of the overall geophysical research, not only magnetic but also gravitational and seismic. I was in charge of the magnetic activities, though I did work out problems in the other areas too. I wrote a joint paper in that period on electrical methods in prospecting.

HODDESON:

This is a good place for us to break for lunch. My next questions concern your transition from Gulf to Princeton and that will undoubtedly take us some time to discuss.

BARDEEN:

Yes.

[1]Patrick Young’s article in The National Observer, 9 Dec 1972, Vol. 11, No. 50.

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