William Bradford Shockley


“The half-baked ideas of people are better than the ideas of half-baked people.” (William Shockley)

Shockley was the brilliant team leader of the group Shockley-Brattain-Bardeen who developed the transistor in 1947. Later his life would turn into a classic Euripides tragedy.


William Bradford Shockley was born on February 10, 1910, in London, England. He was the only child of William Shockley, a qualified mining engineer, and his wife May, one of the first women graduates of Stanford University. When the young William was three years old, the family returned to the U.S. and settled in Palo Alto, California. William grew up in rather isolation, not only because his parents preferred to live like that themselves, but also because he was an only child and was home-educated until he reached the age of eight. It didn’t make him a very sociable person.

In 1928 Shockley entered the California Institute of Technology, Caltech, where four years later he obtained his B.Sc. majoring in physics. He then moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do his doctorate. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1936, he joined Bell Telephone Laboratories – Bell Labs for short – as a research physicist working on solid state physics. During World War II Shockley worked on radar systems for the Ministry of Defence’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group. Using his skills in mathematics and statistics he developed tactics for the convoys crossing the Atlantic to evade the German bombers. He also got involved with training American bomber crews to increase their success ratio. For his efforts during World War II he received the National Medal of Merit. After the war, he returned to Bell Labs to continue his research.


The Transistor

Back at Bell Labs, Shockley was asked to head the new Solid State Physics Group with the task of finding a solid state replacement for the fragile and unreliable vacuum tube amplifier. The team consisted of a number of scientists, including Walter Brattain. Shockley, who had a knack for selecting good talent, also hired another scientist, John Bardeen, to join the group. Although Brattain and Bardeen conducted numerous experiments, initially all with negative results, most of the time Shockley wasn’t present as he preferred to work at home on his own ideas and theories, one of them being his field-effect idea regarding the surface state of materials. He left the experiments and the development of his ideas to the members of the team. When Brattain and Bardeen finally came up with a working solid state amplifier in 1947 using silicon and germanium – the point-contact transistor – Shockley wasn’t present to witness the historic event.

In preparing the applications to register the patent for the transistor, the Bell Labs attorneys soon discovered that Shockley’s field-effect contribution already had been patented in 1930 and they had to leave his name off the patent application. Shockley was furious and even tried to have the patent registered in his name only. When he informed Brattain and Bardeen of his plans, they were certainly not impressed. Combined with his already abrasive management style, Shockley had followed a sure path to alienate his closest colleagues. As his plans soon came to naught, he decided to develop a better transistor on his own. His ideas were based on the use of junctions. Both Brattain and Bardeen were not permitted to work on his new transistor which upset them even more. Being a brilliant problem solver, combined with a great analytical mind, Shockley spent the next few years developing and describing his theories regarding the transistor. It resulted in his 1950 book “Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors” which soon became the standard reference work for scientists working on new transistors and other semiconductor devices. In 1951 Shockley produced his improved junction transistor for which he registered a patent in his name that same year. The junction transistor proved to be much easier to mass produce and a myriad of transistors would be built based on his invention.

By that time the very unhappy Bardeen had decided to leave Bell Labs and go back to academia and Brattain had requested to be assigned to another workgroup within Bell Labs. They both could no longer work with Shockley.


From Transistor to Silicon Valley

Being the team leader, Shockley felt that the original transistor had been developed under his guidance and based on some of his ideas, so he felt entitled to take full credit for the invention of the transistor, although he always included Brattain and Bardeen in the glory. What he still wanted was to be his own boss, run things the way he wanted and enjoy the full benefit of his inventions. In 1955, one of his old friends from Caltech, Arnold Beckman, who owned the electronics firm Beckman Instruments, offered Shockley the post of Director of a new division – the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. Shockley saw his chance and accepted. He tried to entice some of his old Bell Labs colleagues to join him but nobody wanted to have anything to do with him anymore. He was forced to recruit some new bright talents from Stanford and other universities.

In 1956 the trio Shockley-Brattain-Bardeen was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Shockley finally received the recognition he had sought so desperately.

In 1958 Shockley decided not to continue research in silicon-based semiconductors but to concentrate on his own three-state diode. Eight of his researchers who had already complained to Beckman one year earlier that they could no longer work with Shockley, decided to leave Shockley Semiconductors and with seed capital from Fairchild Camera & Instruments the group started Fairchild Semiconductor.

Amongst the group of eight were Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce who later would leave Fairchild and start Intel which would become a world leading chip maker. Shockley Semiconductor seemed to have become the springboard for new hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley.

While Shockley’s work slowly faded out, the companies around him – Fairchild and Texas Instruments – soon introduced the newly invented integrated circuits, making Shockley’s endeavours virtually superfluous. While Silicon Valley was being born, and generating fortunes for countless people in the process, Shockley was left out of its wealth creation. His company changed hands a few times and finally folded in 1968. He went back to lecturing full-time.

Shockley had been a visiting lecturer at Caltech since 1954. In 1963 Stanford University appointed him as Professor of Engineering and Applied Science.


His personal life

In 1954 Shockley’s first wife Jean, with whom he had three children, was diagnosed with uterine cancer, but she recovered from it. One year later Shockley divorced her. In 1955 he met and married his second wife, Emily Lanning, who would stay with him until his death.

One of his hobbies was rock climbing. He often climbed in the Shawangunk mountains in the Hudson River valley and even opened up an overhang crossing which received his name “Shockley’s Ceiling”.


The controversies erupt

Later in his life Shockley became interested in eugenics – a pseudo scientific philosophy, often associated with the racist Nazis’ Űbermensch philosophy, where genetic differences are linked to race. In 1964 he stated that Afro Americans as a group scored significantly lower in IQ tests and claimed the cause was hereditary. The scientific world erupted. He was vilified in debates, interviews, in the printed press and on television. The stronger the debate became, the more radical his views seemed to become. He seemed to seek the controversy and tried to underpin his racial views with his sublime mastery of statistics. The net result was his total isolation, not only in the scientific world, but he even became estranged from his own children. His extreme views seemed to outweigh his brilliant scientific achievements and his reputation ended in tatters. He withdrew from public life to his home on the Stanford campus.


Shockley died of prostate cancer on August 12, 1989, with only his wife Emmy at his side. His children – one of whom he hadn’t spoken to for twenty years, with the other two it was hardly any better – learned from his death through newspaper reports. His obituary in the The New York Times stated that according to Stanford University, “Shockley regarded his work on race more important than his discovery of the transistor.


Like Bardeen, LIFE Magazine included Shockley in their list of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the Century.” He also received a number of honorary doctorates. Despite his many scientific achievements and accolades his remembrance will always be tainted by his racial views.



© Wobbe Vegter, 2008







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