Happy Birthday to William Shockley, Co-inventor of the Transistor and a Pioneer of Silicon Valley

William Shockley (1910-1989)

William Shockley (1910-1989)

Today is the Birthday of William Shockley, a brilliant physicist and co-inventor of the transistor, whose reputation suffered in his later years from his fascination with IQ and eugenics.  Born in London, Shockley grew up as only child of older parents in Palo Alto, California. During WWII he made important contributions to naval defense against submarines.  Both before and after the war, he worked on solid state physics at Bell Labs. In 1948, a team he led developed the first working transistor. Shockley was not personally involved in building the first transistor, and he was so worried that he would not be credited for the invention that he pulled away by himself and spent several weeks feverishly working on an improved version.  He succeeded in developing an improved junction transistor, made of the semiconductor germanium, using a method knows as an n-p-n sandwich.  For their work on the transistor, the three inventors – John Bardeen, William Brattain, and William Shockley – shared the 1956 Nobel Prize.

imagesShockley had difficulty working on a team, and not long after inventing the transistor, he left the East Coast for California to form Shockley Semiconductor, now working with silicon instead of germanium. Shockley recruited the most talented scientists and engineers he could find, but his autocratic management style soon led a subset of his team to strike out on their own to form a new company. Dubbed “The Traitorous Eight,” those men formed Fairchild Semiconductor, a company that went on to push technology further and faster than ever before. Fairchild Semiconductor went on to spawn many new companies (Intel and National Semiconductor among them) and thus create the technology center now known as Silicon Valley.

Pioneer that he was, Shockley’s arrogance, insecurity, and intolerance of diversity or dissent kept him from earning the kind of success and broader respect he might otherwise have enjoyed. As he grew older Shockley became fixated on the notion of eugenics – the belief that society has a right and obligation to prevent people of lower intelligence from having children. His obsession with IQ and insistence that African-Americans were less intelligent than Caucasians alienated colleagues and family alike.

William Shockley’s scientific insights and social blind spots are all part of the adventure in Tumblehome Learning’s The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip, in which Clinton and Mae learn about electronics from those who developed the field, with all their quirks and warts.

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Feb 13, 2014 | Posted by in Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip, Inventors, Robert Shockley | Comments Off