William Shockley fathered the transistor and brought the silicon to Silicon Valley but is remembered by many only for his noxious racial views
The transistor was born just before Christmas 1947 when John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, two scientists working for William Shockley at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., observed that when electrical signals were applied to contacts on a crystal of germanium, the output power was larger than the input. Shockley was not present at that first observation. And though he fathered the discovery in the same way Einstein fathered the atom bomb, by advancing the idea and pointing the way, he felt left out of the momentous occasion.
Shockley, a very competitive and sometimes infuriating man, was determined to make his imprint on the discovery. He searched for an explanation of the effect from what was then known of the quantum physics of semiconductors. In a remarkable series of insights made over a few short weeks, he greatly extended the understanding of semiconductor materials and developed the underlying theory of another, much more robust amplifying device – a kind of sandwich made of a crystal with varying impurities added, which came to be known as the junction transistor. By 1951 Shockley’s co-workers made his semiconductor sandwich and demonstrated that it behaved much as his theory had predicted.
For the next couple of decades advances in transistor technology drove the industry, as several companies jumped on the idea and set out to develop commercially viable versions of the device. New ways to create Shockley’s sandwich were invented, and transistors in a vast variety of sizes and shapes flooded the market. Shockley’s invention had created a new industry, one that underlies all of modern electronics, from supercomputers to talking greeting cards. Today the world produces about as many transistors as it does printed characters in all the newspapers, books, magazines and computer and electronic-copier pages combined.
William Bradford Shockley was born in London, where his father, a mining engineer, and mother, a mineral surveyor, were on a business assignment. Home-schooled in Palo Alto, Calif., before attending Palo Alto Military Academy and Hollywood High School, he found his interest in physics sparked by a neighbor who taught the subject at Stanford University. Shockley earned a bachelor’s degree from Caltech, and a Ph.D. at M.I.T. for a dissertation titled -Calculations of Wave Functions for Electrons in Sodium Chloride Crystals.”
At Bell Labs, Shockley recognized early on that the solution to one of the technological nightmares of the day–the cost and unreliability of the vacuum tubes used as valves to control the flow of electrons in radios and telephone-relay systems – lay in solid-state physics. Vacuum tubes were hot, bulky, fragile and short-lived. Crystals, particularly crystals that can conduct a bit of electricity, could do the job faster, more reliably and with 1 million times less power – if only someone could get them to function as electronic valves. Shockley and his team figured out how to accomplish this trick.
Understanding of the significance of the invention of what came to be called the transistor (for transfer resistance) spread quite rapidly. In 1956 Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain shared a Nobel Prize in Physics – an unusual awarding of the Nobel for the invention of a useful article.
Not content with his lot at Bell Labs, Shockley set out to capitalize on his invention. In doing so, he played a key role in the industrial development of the region at the base of the San Francisco Peninsula. It was Shockley who brought the silicon to Silicon Valley.
In February 1956, with financing from Beckman Instruments Inc., he founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory with the goal of developing and producing a silicon transistor. He chose to establish this start-up near Palo Alto, where he had grown up and where his mother still lived. He set up operations in a storefront – little more than a Quonset hut – and hired a group of young scientists (I was one of them) to develop the necessary technology. By the spring of 1956 he had a small staff in place and was beginning to undertake research and development.
Until this time, nearly all transistors had utilized germanium because it was easier to prepare in pure form. Silicon offered advantages, at least in theory, mainly because devices made from it could operate at higher temperatures. Also, silicon is a very common chemical element, whereas germanium is relatively rare. Silicon, however, melts at a much higher temperature, making its purification and processing more difficult.
Shockley’s group set to work to learn about the materials and processes that would be required. Only a couple of the scientists had any previous experience with semiconductors, so it was an intense learning time for most of us.
Working for Shockley proved to be a particular challenge. He extended his competitive nature even to his working relationships with the young physicists he supervised. Beyond that, he developed traits that we came to view as paranoid. He suspected that members of his staff were purposely trying to undermine the project and prohibited them from access to some of the work. He viewed several trivial events as malicious and assigned blame. He felt it necessary to check new results with his previous colleagues at Bell Labs, and he generally made it difficult for us to work together.
In what was probably the final straw, he decided the entire laboratory staff should undergo polygraph tests to determine who was responsible for a minor injury experienced by one of the office workers. While the group was making real progress in developing the technology needed to produce silicon transistors, Shockley’s management style proved an increasing burden.
The group was in danger of breaking up. In fact, a few of the first recruits had already abandoned the lab for other jobs. To try to stabilize the organization, several of us went over Shockley’s head, directly to Arnold Beckman, who had financed the start-up, suggesting that Shockley be removed from direct management of the lab and function only as a technical consultant.
We grossly overestimated our power. Shockley survived our insurrection, and when it failed, we felt we had to look elsewhere for jobs. In the process of searching, we became convinced that our best course was to set up our own company to complete Shockley’s original goal – which he had abandoned by this time in favor of another semiconductor device he had also invented – to make a commercial silicon transistor.
This new company, financed by Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corp., became the mother organization for several dozen new companies in Silicon Valley. Nearly all the scores of companies that are or have been active in semiconductor technology can trace the technical lineage of their founders back through Fairchild to the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. Unintentionally, Shockley contributed to one of the most spectacular and successful industry expansions in history.
In 1963 Shockley left the electronics industry and accepted an appointment at Stanford. There he became interested in the origins of human intelligence. Although he had no formal training in genetics or psychology, he began to formulate a theory of what he called dysgenics. Using data from the U.S. Army’s crude pre-induction IQ tests, he concluded that African Americans were inherently less intelligent than Caucasians – an analysis that stirred wide controversy among laymen and experts in the field alike.
Nonetheless, Shockley pursued his inflammatory ideas in a series of articles and speeches. Regularly interrupted by boos and catcalls, he argued that remedial educational programs were a waste of time. He suggested that individuals with IQs below 100 be paid to undergo voluntary sterilization. He donated openly and repeatedly to a so-called Nobel sperm bank designed to pass on the genes of geniuses. He filed a $1.25 million libel suit against the Atlanta Constitution, which had compared his ideas to Nazi genetic experiments; the jury awarded him $1 in damages. He ran for the U.S. Senate on the dysgenics platform and came in eighth.
Sadly, when he died at 79 of cancer, he regarded his work in genetics as more important than any role he played in creating the $130 billion semiconductor industry.