Walter Lyons Brown passed away on 29 October 2017 in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He was a superb experimental physicist with deep insights and had an expansive character that cultivated new science and young scientists. He exercised those qualities superbly at Bell Labs, where he spent most of his career.

Walter Lyons Brown

Walter was born on 11 October 1924 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His father was a physics professor at the University of Virginia, and Walter was “in the lab” at the age of 10. After a stint in the US Navy, Walter went to Duke University, from which he graduated in 1945 with a BS in physics. He attended graduate school at Harvard University and earned a master’s degree in 1947 and a PhD in 1951 under the supervision of future Nobelist Edward Purcell. In his thesis, Walter observed the experimental binding energy of the deuteron; he calibrated his measurement using the high-resolution electron-energy capabilities of a magnetic spectrometer—an instrument that, characteristically, he had machined.

A visit to Bell Labs, with its stimulating atmosphere and high quality, lured Walter. On 1 December 1950 he embarked on what resulted in a 51-year career there. Following retirement, he accepted a position as an adjunct professor at Lehigh University, mentoring students in materials research.

After first working in Bell’s contact-physics department, Walter moved to the transistor-physics department and helped produce the newly invented device. Daily interactions with William Shockley, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, and other scientific luminaries were exciting and stimulating. Walter believed that his observation of the field effect on the surface conductance in germanium was his most important scientific contribution in those early years. That nascent semiconductor science led to exploration of the effects of energetic particle bombardment, which would strongly influence the remainder of his career.

In 1959 Walter was promoted to department head of semiconductor physics. In 1965 he became head of a new department, which he chose to call “radiation physics” because, he dryly noted, with that title you could explore any field of physics. As its leader, Walter not only showcased his strength as a physicist but also created new research areas, cultivated young scientists, and reinforced the spirit that made Bell Labs so distinctive—strong collaboration, excellent science, and a hotbed of ideas and invention.

Walter’s experience with semiconductors and particle beams helped stimulate new directions, some far from the Bell Labs mainstream. The characteristic Brown–Bell philosophy was that if it was exciting science, “we” should be involved. For Walter, that took the form of establishing a nuclear-physics effort. In the 1960s nuclear physicists were at the frontiers of electronics, radiation detection, and the online use of computers—all areas close to Bell Labs’ interests. To enable the nuclear enterprise, Walter engineered one of the earliest and most substantial university–industry collaborations, a state-of-the-art tandem accelerator laboratory with Rutgers University.

In 1960 Bell entered the communications space race when they began to develop a broadband satellite communications system, Telstar. Determining how to mitigate the effect of the Van Allen radiation belts on solid-state electronics was a perfect challenge for Walter: It made abundant use of his background and led him to new areas of investigation and management. Walter and his team developed unique packages of nuclear-physics-type radiation detectors to measure particle fluxes in space. The measurements were instrumental to making Telstar a success. In the harried atmosphere of Bell’s space-science endeavor, Walter was crucial—commuting among labs and locations, testing and designing, managing large groups, and even being the “midnight phantom foamer” to minimize launch vibration effects.

Walter continued his interest in charged particles and semiconductors. Bell’s space-related research evolved to programs in astrophysics, geoscience, and plasma physics. Studies of particle–solid interactions led to Bell Labs’ leadership in ion implantation, a process that has contributed importantly to the silicon revolution. Walter and his colleagues’ studies of particle–ice interactions led to the concept of the electronic-sputtering mechanism of insulators. Walter’s contributions were personal—he was in the laboratory at all hours—and he created a rich science and applications environment that expanded the horizons of those who interacted with him.

Walter was much admired for his contributions to science and technology. His many honors included the 1984 Arthur Von Hippel Award from the Materials Research Society.

Throughout his career, Walter was first and foremost devoted to his family and his faith. He taught Sunday school for more than 40 years, and until recently he constructed houses with Habitat for Humanity.

His many colleagues, including the four of us who were members of his Bell Labs department, are thankful to have been a part of his life and to have shared in his excitement for science and engineering.