Clinton Joseph Davissonwas born in Bloomington, Illinois, USA, on October 22, 1881, the son of Joseph Davisson, a native Ohio craftsman, a descendant of the early Dutch and French settlers of Virginia and a veteran of the American Civil War Union and his wife Mary Calvert, a Pennsylvania native school teacher of English and Scottish descent.
He attended the Bloomington public schools and, upon graduating from high school in 1902, the University of Chicago awarded him a scholarship for his proficiency in mathematics and physics. In September of that year he entered the University of Chicago and immediately came under the influence of Professor R.A. Millikan. Unable to continue in Chicago the following year, for financial reasons, he found employment at a telephone company in his hometown. In January 1904, he was appointed assistant physics at Purdu University, on the recommendation of Professor Millikan.
He returned to Chicago in June 1904 and remained in residence at the University until August 1905. In September 1905, again on the recommendation of Professor Millikan, he was appointed part-time instructor of physics at Princeton University. He held this position until 1910, studying, as his duties permitted, with Professor Francis Magie, Professor E. P. Adams, Professor (later Sir) James Jeans, and in particular with Professor O.W. Richardson. During part of this period, Davisson returned to the University of Chicago for summer sessions and in August 1908 received a B.S. degree (baccalaureate in science) of that institution.
He was awarded a Fellowship in Physics at Princeton for the year 1910-1911 and during that year he completed the requirements for the degree of Ph.D. which he received in 1911. His thesis, directed by Professor Richardson, wasOn the thermal emission of positive ions from alkaline earth salts.
From September 1911 to June 1917 he was an instructor in the Department of Physics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the summer of 1913 he worked at the Cavendish Laboratory with Professor (later Sir) J.J. Thomson.
In April 1917 he was denied enlistment in the United States Army. In June of the same year, he accepted a wartime job in the Engineering Department of the Western Electric Company (later Bell Telephone Laboratories) in New York City, initially during the summer and then on leave from Carnegie Tech. , while World War I lasted. At the end of the war he resigned from an assistant professorship to which he had been appointed at Carnegie Tech, to continue as a Member of the Technical Corps of Telephone Laboratories.
The series of investigations that led to the discovery of electron diffraction in 1927 began in 1919 and continued in 1929 with the first collaboration of Dr. C.H. Kunsman, and from 1924 onward, Dr. L.H. Germer. During the same period, thermal radiation investigations were carried out with the collaboration of Mr. J.R. Weeks, and in thermionics with Dr. H.A. Pidgeon and Dr. Germer.
From 1930-1937, theDr. Davissonhe devoted himself to the study of the theory of electronic optics and to the 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 electronic device theory 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 received the Comstock Prize from the National Academy of Sciences, in 1931 the Elliott Cresson Medal from the Franklin Institute, and in 1935 the Hughes Medal from the Royal Society (London), and in 1941 the Alumni Medal from the University of Chicago. He earned honorary doctorates from Purdue University, Princeton University, the University of Lyon, and Colby College.
In 1911 he married Charlotte Sara Richardson, Professor Richardson’s sister. He died in Charlottesville on February 1, 1958, at the age of 76, and was survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.