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William Shockley

William Bradford Shockley (February 13, 1910 – August 12, 1989) American physicist, eugenicist and co-inventor of the transistor with John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. His attempts to commercialize a new transistor design in the 1950s and 60s led directly to the creation of Silicon Valley. In his later life, Shockley was a "superb" professor at Stanford.[1]

Born in London, England, to American parents, and raised in California, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1932 and his doctorate from MIT in 1936. Notably, the title of his doctoral thesis was Calculation of Electron Wave Functions in Sodium Chloride Crystals.

After receiving his doctorate, he immediately joined a research group headed by Dr. C.J. Davisson at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and began moving up the management ladder. In the mid 1940's, Shockley's group, consisting of Bardeen and Brattain, sought a solid-state alternative to fragile glass vacuum tube amplifiers. Shockley insisted on working alone, leaving his two researchers by themselves, occasionally dropping by to direct their work.

December of 1947 was Bell Labs' "Miracle Month", when Bardeen and Brattain succeeded in creating a point-contact transistor -- without Shockley. Even so, Shockley thought he should have the patent, since the team's work was motivated by Shockley's idea using field effects. He made efforts to have the patent written in his name only and told Bardeen and Brattain of his intentions. At the same time he secretly continued his own work to build a different sort of transistor based on junctions instead of point contacts; he expected this kind of design would be more likely to be viable commercially.

Bell Lab attorneys soon discovered that Shockley's field effect principle had been anticipated and patented in 1930 by Julius Lilienfeld. Although the patent appeared breakable, Bell Labs decided it could not risk the chance of its patent being rejected, and therefore based its patent application only on the Bardeen-Brattain design. Shockley's name was not on the resulting patent.

During this time Shockley worked out the critical ideas of drift and diffusion and the differential equations that govern the flow of electrons in solid state crystals. He also conceived of the possibility of minority carrier injection that led to his concepts for a sandwich transistor weeks later. This would lead to the junction transistor, invented by Shockley on July 5, 1951. He obtained a patent for this invention.

The ensuing publicity generated by the "invention of the transistor" limelighted Shockley. Shockley was a popular speaker/lecturer and was often consulted by Washington (DC) and the military. This further infuriated and alienated Bardeen and Brattain. Shockley later blocked the two from working on the junction transistor. Bardeen eventually quit, while Brattain refused to work with Shockley further.

His abrasive management style caused him to be passed over for executive promotion at Bell Labs, which correctly felt he was a greater asset as a research scientist and theorist. Shockley wanted the power and profit he felt he deserved. He resigned from Bell Labs in 1953 and moved back to the California Institute of Technology.

Shockley was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956, along with Bardeen and Brattain.

Shockley Semiconductor

Eventually he was given a chance to run his own company as a division of his Caltech friend's successful electronics firm. In 1955, he joined Beckman Instruments, where he was appointed as the Director of Beckman's newly founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory division in Mountain View, California. With his prestige and Beckman's capital, Shockley attempted to lure some of his former colleges from Bell Labs to his new lab, but none of them would come to join him. Instead he started scouring universities for the brightest graduates to build a company from scratch, one that would be run "his way".

"His way" could generally be summed up as "domineering and increasingly paranoid". In one famous incident he claimed that a secretary's cut thumb was an attempt to poison him, and he demanded lie detector tests to find the culprit. It was later demonstrated the cut was due to a broken thumbtack on the office door, and from that point the research staff was increasingly hostile. Meanwhile his demands to create a new and technically difficult device, now known as the Shockley diode, meant that the project was moving very slowly.

In late 1957 eight of his researchers, whom he later named "the Traitorous Eight", resigned and started Fairchild Semiconductor after being given seed capital from Fairchild to form a semiconductor division. This moment can be pointed to as the birth of silicon valley. Among the "Traitorous Eight" were Robert Noyce and Gordon E. Moore, who themselves would leave Fairchild to create Intel. Other offspring companies of Fairchild Semiconductor include National Semiconductor and Advanced Micro Devices.

Shockley Semiconductor did not, however, make Shockley a fortune or even turn a profit. While still trying to get his three-state device to work, Fairchild and Texas Instruments both introduced the first integrated circuits, making Shockley's work essentially superfluous.

A group of about 30 colleagues have met on and off at Stanford since 1956 to reminisce about their time with Shockley and his central role in sparking the information technology revolution, its organizer saying "Shockley is the man who brought silicon to Silicon Valley." [2]

Beliefs about populations and genetics

In his later life, Shockley began giving speeches on population problems, an issue that had interested him since his wartime trips to India. In 1963 he gave a speech at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota suggesting that the people least competent to survive in the world were the ones reproducing the fastest, while the best of the human population was using birth control and having fewer children.

In an interview with U.S. News & World Report in 1963, he "fell into the trap of discussing race," as one biographer writes.[3] He noted that intelligence research shows a genetic factor in intellectual capacity and that tests for IQ indicate that African Americans have an average IQ 15 points lower than the population average. He was subsequently attacked in the media, for eugenics had become unpopular after its manifestations under the Nazis in WWII. (See also IQ:Genetics vs environment and Race and intelligence)

Shockley believed that the higher rate of reproduction among African Americans was having a "dysgenic" effect, and expressed an interest in eugenics. He thought this work was important to the genetics of the population, and came to describe it as the most important work of his career, even though it severely tarnished his reputation. Shockley's published writings on this topic, such as in Letters to the Editor of the Palo Alto Times, were largely based on the research of Cyril Burt.

Perhaps it was his beliefs about eugenics that led him to donate sperm to the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank founded by Robert Klark Graham in hopes of spreading humans' best genes. The bank, called by the media the "Nobel Prize sperm bank," claimed to have three Nobel Prize-winning donors, though Shockley was the only one to come forward publicly. No children were conceived with any of the Nobel Prize sperm, however, the publicity that came with Shockley's announcement created a demand for the material. This caused Graham to broaden his criteria to allow distinguished and healthy looking men to donate, and 215 babies were born as a result.[4]

Shockley had a stormy relationship with his three children. By the time of his death in 1989 of prostate cancer, he was almost completely estranged from them, and his children are reported to have only learned of his death through the print media.


"I am overwhelmed by an irresistible temptation to do my climb by moonlight and unroped." Shockley, 1947

"I had one experience which gave me some slant on the way large organizations run. I was not allowed to take spherical trigonometry because I'd sprained my ankle. Because I'd sprained my ankle I had an incomplete in gym, phys ed. And the rule was that if you had an incomplete in anything, you were not allowed to take an overload. I argued with some clerical person in the administration office, and was stopped there. It's an experience which I've remembered since, and advised people not to be stopped at the first point." -Shockley


Shockley, U.S. Patent 2502488 "Semiconductor amplifier". April 4, 1950.

William Shockley Interview, 1969

Books about William Shockley

  • Joel N. Shurkin; Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. ISBN 1-4039-8815-3
  • Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson; Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age. New York: Norton. 1997. ISBN 0-393-31851-6 pbk.

Physics Encyclopedia

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