Skip to content

Clinton Joseph Davisson *1911
Physics 1937


The Nobel Prize in Physics 1937

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1937 was awarded jointly to Clinton Joseph Davisson and George Paget Thomson "for their experimental discovery of the diffraction of electrons by crystals."


In the beginning of the 19th century, quantum physics evolved from the idea that energy is conveyed in only certain fixed amounts. An early finding indicated that light can be regarded as both waves and particles. Later it was proposed that matter, such as electrons, also can be described as both waves and particles. In 1927 Clinton Davisson and G.P. Thomson demonstrated, independently of one another, that electrons could be described as waves. When an electron beam passed through a nickel crystal, diffraction patterns appeared.

[Curator’s note: The following material quotes and paraphrases extensively from articles posted by the Nobel Prize Committee; see Sources below for details.]

Early life

Clinton Joseph Davisson was born at Bloomington, Illinois, U.S.A., October 22, 1881, son of Joseph Davisson, an artisan, native of Ohio, descendant of early Dutch and French settlers of Virginia, Union veteran of the American Civil War, and Mary Calvert, a school teacher, native of Pennsylvania, of English and Scotch parentage.

He attended the Bloomington public schools, and on graduation from High School in 1902 was granted a scholarship by the University of Chicago for proficiency in mathematics and physics. In September of that year he entered the University of Chicago and came at once under the influence of Professor R.A. Millikan. Unable for financial reasons to continue at Chicago the following year he found employment with a telephone company in his hometown. In January 1904 he was appointed assistant in physics at Purdue University on recommendation of Professor Millikan. He returned to Chicago in June 1904 and remained in residence at the University until August 1905.

Princeton instructor and PhD in Physics

In September 1905, again on the recommendation of Professor Millikan, he was appointed part-time instructor in physics at Princeton University. This post he held until 1910, studying, as his duties permitted, under Professor Francis Magie, Professor E. P. Adams, Professor (later Sir) James Jeans and particularly under Professor O.W. Richardson. During a part of this period Davisson returned to the University of Chicago for the summer sessions and in August 1908 received a B.S. degree from that institution.

He was awarded a Fellowship in Physics at Princeton for the year 1910-1911 and during that year completed requirements for the degree of Ph.D. which he received in June 1911. His thesis, under Professor Richardson, was On The Thermal Emission of Positive Ions From Alkaline Earth Salts. From September 1911 until June 1917 he was an instructor in the Department of Physics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pa. During the summer of 1913 he worked in the Cavendish Laboratory under Professor (later Sir) J.J. Thomson.

Bell Telephone Laboratories research

In April 1917 he was refused enlistment in the United States Army. In June of the same year, he accepted war-time employment in the Engineering Department of the Western Electric Company (later Bell Telephone Laboratories), New York City. He initially took this for the summer, then, on leave of absence from Carnegie Tech., for the duration of the World War. At the end of the war he resigned an assistant professorship to which he had been appointed at Carnegie Tech. to continue as a Member of the Technical Staff of the Telephone Laboratories.

A series of investigations that led to the discovery of electron diffraction in 1927 was begun in 1919 and continued into 1929 with the collaboration first of Dr. C.H. Kunsman, and from 1924 on, of Dr. L.H. Germer. During the same period research was carried on in thermal radiation with the collaboration of Mr. J.R. Weeks, and in thermionics with Dr. H.A. Pidgeon and Dr. Germer.

From 1930-1937 Dr. Davisson devoted himself to the study of the theory of electron optics and to applications of this theory to engineering problems. He then investigated the scattering and reflection of very slow electrons by metals. During World War II he worked on the theory of electronic devices and on a variety of crystal physics problems.

In 1946 he retired from Bell Telephone Laboratories after 29 years of service. From 1947 to 1949, he was Visiting Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

In 1928 he was awarded the Comstock Prize by the National Academy of Sciences, in 1931 the Elliott Cresson Medal by the Franklin Institute, and in 1935 the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society (London), and in 1941 the Alumni Medal by the University of Chicago. He held honorary doctorates from Purdue University, Princeton University1, the University of Lyon and Colby College.

He died in Charlottesville on February 1, 1958, at the age of 76, and was survived by his wife, three sons and one daughter.


1 Granted in 1938


The Nobel Prize in Physics 1937.

Clinton Davisson – Facts.

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. © The Nobel Foundation 1937:Clinton Davisson – Biographical.


PAW: The List

Clinton Davisson in Wikipedia

The National Academy of Sciences: Clinton Joseph Davisson 1881-1958 by Mervin J. Kelly