The Bottom Line

Can you imagine a world without lasers? No DVDs, no CDs, no lightsabers ... well, fear not! Clinton Davisson is known as the first person to observe wave motion in electrons. The recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Physics, and pretty much the forefather of modern crystal physics, Davisson is a great example of the hard-working, industrious, and intelligent early 20th century American.

The Rest Of The Story

Clinton Joseph Davisson was born at Bloomington, Illinois on October 22, 1881, to Joseph and Mary Davisson. Mr. Davisson was an "artisan" (read: unemployed) Civil War veteran, while Mary was a schoolmarm. Clinton did quite well in school, so much so that upon graduation from high school he received a scholarship to the University of Chicago to study physics. Lucky for Clinton, the eminent professor Robert Millikan was working at Chicago at the time, and Davisson soon came under his wing. Unfortunately for Clinton, his scholarship was only enough to keep him in school for one year, and he returned to Bloomington to work for the telephone company.

Professor Millikan didn't forget his pupil, however, and soon Davisson was given a job as a physics assistant at Purdue, on advisement from Millikan. The job helped pay Davisson's tuition, and he was allowed to return to Chicago, where he received more tutelage from Millikan. Millikan, try saying that ten times fast. Anywho, in September of 1905, Davisson got a new job as a physics instructor at Princeton. He returned diligently every summer to Chicago, and in 1908 received his B.S. in physics.

Upon graduation, he was given a fellowship at Princeton, and wrote his Ph.D. thesis, "On The Thermal Emission of Positive Ions From Alkaline Earth Salts," a particularly boring subject in principle, but thoroughly livened by the possibilities of radiation and endless energy, as espoused by Davisson. It was here that he first got his taste for examining crystals and alkaline metals' atomic properties. Davisson celebrated his new degree by getting hitched to one of his professor's sisters, Charlotte Richardson, with whom he had 4 children. After earning his doctorate, Davisson hit up another school for a job, this time the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later formed into Carnegie-Mellon University). In the summer of 1913, he was offered a prestigious position as head researcher at the Cavendish Laboratory on the Cambridge campus. Home to such imminent guests as J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, and Wilhelm Roentgen, all Nobel Prize winners, Davisson felt right at home, taking in as much knowledge as he could.

When World War I broke out, Clinton tried to enlist, but at 36 and myopic, he was unable to do so. So he joined the Engineering Department of a mid-sized New York City company called Western Electric. At first he only worked there in the summer, but then he took leave of absence from Carnegie for the duration of the war. By the time the war had ended, Davisson had quit Carnegie altogether, and Western Electric had become Bell Telephone Laboratories. He now began work with C. H. Kunsman, another Princeton P.hD., on electron optics - the reaction of crystals to light beams. In 1925, he and Dr. Lester Germer were bombarding nickel with electricity when the vacuum tube they were using broke, ruining the nickel. When they reheated the nickel, it fused into large crystals, and when these crystals were bombarded, the electrons that broke off exhibited patterns of diffraction. Four years later, Davisson's research culminated in the experimental discovery of electron diffraction, which proved that electrons reacted to wave motion by emitting waves - X-ray waves, although their wavelength could be controlled by controlling the power of the electronic beam striking the electrons. Finally, controlling atoms was a reality.

Not to be stopped at one discovery, Davisson worked endlessly at inventing practical applications for his discovery - the LASER being just out of his grasp - and developed hundreds of theories and experiments to understand the physics of crystals, until finally retiring in 1946 from Bell. He spent his last working days as a professor at the University of Virginia, and retired full-time in 1950.

For his discovery, Davisson was awarded the Comstock Prize by the National Academy of Sciences in 1928, the Elliott Cresson Medal by the Franklin Institute in 1931, the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society in 1935, and honorary doctorates from Purdue, the University of Lyon, and Colby College. Oh yeah, and he got that Nobel thing in 1937.

Davisson's presentation speech said the following:

Dr. Davisson. When you found that electron beams touching crystals give rise to phenomena of diffraction and interference, this signified in itself a discovery that widened essentially our knowledge of the nature of electrons. But this discovery has proved to be of still greater importance. Your researches concerning these phenomena resulted in your presenting the first positive, experimental evidence of the wave nature of matter. The investigation methods that you and Professor Thomson have elaborated and the further research work carried out by both of you have provided science with a new, exceedingly important instrument for examining the structure of matter, an instrument constituting a very valuable complement to the earlier method which makes use of the X-ray radiation. The new investigations have already furnished manifold new, significant results within the fields of physics and chemistry and of the practical application of these sciences. On behalf of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences I congratulate you on your important discoveries, and I now ask you to receive your Nobel Prize from the hands of His Majesty.

Clinton Davisson died February 1, 1958 at the age of 76.