Ferdinand Braun Biography

Scientist, Physicist, Inventor (1850–1918)
German physicist Ferdinand Braun was the co-recipient of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his developments with wireless technology.


Physicist Ferdinand Braun was born on June 6, 1850, in Fulda, Germany. Among his groundbreaking accomplishments were the invention of the cathode-ray tube, which became the basis for television and computer displays, and the development of wireless technology to cover significant distances. The co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909, Braun passed away in Brooklyn, New York, on April 20, 1918.

Early Academia

Karl Ferdinand Braun was born on June 6, 1850, in Fulda, Germany, the fourth child of Johann Conrad and Franziska Braun. He took courses in mathematics and chemistry at the University of Marburg before shifting to physics at the University of Berlin, where he earned his doctorate in March 1872 with a thesis on the oscillations of elastic strings. Afterward, he worked as a graduate assistant at Würzburg University.

Research and Discoveries

Braun's first groundbreaking work came with his research of the characteristics of electrolytes and crystals that conduct electricity. In 1874, he identified the rectification effect at the point of contact between metals and certain crystal materials with a semiconductor device—a discovery that helped bring about the invention of the radio a few decades later.

Braun accepted a series of teaching positions while he continued his scientific experiments. He joined the faculty at the St. Thomas Gymnasium in Leipzig in 1874, and in 1877, he was appointed extraordinary professor of theoretical physics at Marburg. He moved on to similar posts at Strasbourg University in 1880, and then at the Polytechnic school in Karlsruhe in 1883, during which time he married Amelie Bühler. Braun made one final academic transfer in 1895, returning to Strasbourg to serve as principal of the Physics Institute.

In 1897, the physicist invented the cathode-ray tube, also known as the Braun tube. By using magnetic forces in a vacuum tube to deflect cathode rays, Braun was able to produce a fluorescent image on a screen. The cathode-ray tube would become the primary electronic display device for radar, television and computers until the end of the 20th century, when flat-screen technologies were introduced.

Braun soon became interested in wireless technology. Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi had conducted the first successful wireless transmission in 1895, but the antenna was directly in the power circuit and broadcasting was limited in range. Braun solved this problem by producing a sparkless antenna circuit that linked transmitter power to the antenna circuit inductively, greatly increasing the broadcasting range of a transmitter.

This discovery enabled Marconi to conduct the first transatlantic transmission in 1901, and ultimately led to the formation of the wireless technology industry. In 1909, Braun and Marconi were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering developments in the field.

Final Years

In 1914, Braun was summoned to New York as a witness in a lawsuit regarding a patent claim of the American Marconi Company against the Atlantic Communication Company. Unfortunately, the escalation of World War I prevented him from leaving New York at the conclusion of the suit and returning to his laboratory in Germany. Braun spent his remaining years at one of his son's homes in Brooklyn, New York, where he died on April 20, 1918.

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