William Shockley — accidental inventor of Silicon Valley

Genius physicist was about to change the world but he became a ridiculed footnote to history. His hubris is perhaps a lesson for today’s tech titans.

William Shockley
Photograph of William Shockley (1910-1989), an American physicist and inventor. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

The first stage of the life of the American physicist William Shockley, the Nobel Prize winning inventor of the solid-state transistor and the first truly world historic figure in the history of Silicon Valley scientific-entrepreneurial disruption, reads as programmatically as the twenty-first century artificially intelligent algorithms which his twentieth century discoveries enabled. It reads as one would expect the twentieth century life of a Silicon Valley pioneer to read. It could have almost written itself.

Born in 1910 to a prosperous and unusually sophisticated Northern Californian family (his mine-engineering father spoke eight languages and his mother was the first US female deputy mining surveyor), Shockley was brought up in the then rustic town of Palo Alto. This little community, down the peninsula from San Francisco and the home of Stanford University, sat in the heart of a farming region rich with peach and apple orchards. It was locally known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight.

After getting his undergraduate degree in Southern California at Caltech, Shockley headed east to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he got his PhD in 1936. Hence on to the legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey, where he distinguished himself as a particularly brilliant researcher into solid-state physics, the discipline that would eventually change the world by, quite literally, becoming the amplification engine of our computer age.

He then had a scientifically productive Second World War as the director of a Columbia University programme focused on anti-submarine warfare and the development of radar precision bombs, for which he was awarded the Medal of Merit in 1946. Like so many other scientific fathers of twentieth century American digital technology – such as Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider and Norbert Weiner – the war was the essential training ground on which Shockley developed military-industrial technologies which would, in the post war age, be centrally deployed by the Pentagon to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Shockley also may have played an unintentional, walk-on role in Harry Truman’s fateful decision to drop an American atomic bomb on Japan. In July 1945, Shockley was recruited by the War Department to write a report predicting the number of casualties in the event of an American invasion of the Japanese mainland. ‘We shall have to kill at least five to ten million Japanese. This might cost us between 1.7 and a million casualties, including 400,000 to 800,000 killed,’ Shockley concluded. Less than a month later, on August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, instantly killing more than 100,000 Japanese civilians.

After the war, Shockley returned to Bell Labs where, as the leader of the solid-state physics group – a hall of fame coterie of American scientists, including the engineer John Bardeen and the physicist Walter Brattain – he pioneered the development of a new kind of transistor. The group was seeking a solid-state alternative to fragile glass vacuum tube amplifiers. In 1947, Bardeen and Brattain developed what was known as a ‘point-contact’ transistor that achieved what seemed at the time to be an almost miraculous degree of amplification.

By the early 1950s, Bell Labs developed a miniature solid-state transistor for televisions and radios one-fiftieth the size of the vacuum tube it replaced. It was a truly revolutionary technological moment The age of electronic miniaturisation had arrived. Shockley and his colleagues had invented the power source of our silicon age – the electronic semiconductor.

These were Shockley’s scientific glory years. In 1951, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In 1953, he was awarded NAS’s prestigious Comstock Prize. And then, in 1956, along with Bardeen and Brattain, he won the Nobel Prize for physics as a reward for, the Swedish committee explained, ‘their research on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect’.

In 1956, Shockley also made what now seems to be that inevitable trek back west, to the Northern California of his youth. But the Palo Alto of the 1920s, the little farming town in the bosom of the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, had changed. It wasn’t known as Silicon Valley yet (the term was coined in 1971), but it was already the home of Hewlett-Packard, the informational technology company founded by two Stanford graduates, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, in a Palo Alto garage in 1939. Indeed, that one-car garage is now an official Californian Historical Landmark, with a plaque celebrating it as the ‘Birthplace of Silicon Valley’.

Shockley would, no doubt, have disagreed. His goal, on returning to Palo Alto, was to set up what he called the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first establishment working on silicon semiconductor devices. The Nobel prize winning scientist wanted to become the start-up entrepreneur. His ambition was to design and manufacture the silicon chips that would transform the Valley of the Heart’s Delight into Silicon Valley.

And it was then, in the fateful year of 1956, that Shockley’s life took a funny turn. If a Hollywood screenwriter was writing the plot, Shockley would have become an early version of that iconic contemporary figure – a brave and brilliant entrepreneur who transforms their technical wizardry into billions of dollars. But history – real-life history, that is – isn’t written by Southern Californian screenwriters. In 1956, the law of unintended consequences kicked in and Shockley’s algorithm of personal agency went ingloriously haywire.

There was, in fact, another William Shockley who existed in parallel, or perhaps in opposition, to the scientific genius. This was a devil of a fellow, cursed by a hateful ego and temper. As a young man, he was so prone to violent tantrums that his family exiled him to a military academy in Los Angeles. Things didn’t get much better as he grew up. At Bell Labs, he was so unpleasant to work with that John Bardeen and Walter Brattain essentially boycotted him after 1951. Shockley returned the compliment, complaining publicly that neither Bardeen nor Brattain deserved the Nobel Prize because, he claimed, they had contributed nothing to the invention of solid-state technology.

Founded by a psychotic egoist, it’s no surprise that Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the tech company that Shockley believed would change the world, turned into the Titanic of start-ups. By 1957, eight of the senior people he had personally recruited quit because they found working for him intolerable, and launched a rival semiconductor company, Fairchild Semiconductors.

Among these eight young technologists were the two Intel co-founders, Gordon Moore (the man behind the eponymous Moore’s Law, concerning the doubling of chip power every 18 months) and Robert Noyce, as well as Eugene Kleiner, the co-founder of Kleiner-Perkins, the first venture capital fund. These eight men were the crème-de-la-creme of a nascent American techno-financial intelligentsia whose ideas, companies and capital would transform the analogue twentieth into the digital twenty-first century. And they all refused to work for a tyrant like William Shockley.

The tone-deaf Shockley accused them of being ‘traitors’. Ironically, these Fairchild co-founders are now popularly eulogised as the legendary ‘traitorous eight’ who essentially incubated Silicon Valley. Among the so-called ‘Fairchildren’ – the tech companies spawned by Fairchild Semiconductors – are the chipmakers Intel and AMD. Without the Fairchildren, there would be no Apple, no Microsoft, no Google, no Facebook, no internet, no Tesla, no Uber, no iPhones, and no iPads.

‘Shockley is the man who brought silicon to Silicon Valley’ some have argued. But it was the deliciously unintentional result of his psychosis that brought silicon to Silicon Valley. For all of us, as the beneficiaries, it was a miracle; for Shockley, though, totally isolated and humiliated after 1956, it was a nightmare.

So, what became of him after the demise of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories? The Nobel Prize winning physicist joined Stanford University where, between 1963 and 1975, he was a professor of electrical engineering. And at Stanford he became a more and more outspoken proponent of eugenics, the supposed ‘science’ that ranks the genetic quality of different racial groups. By the end of his life, he had become such a universally mocked figure that the academic psychology journal Intelligence ranked him as the second-most ‘controversial’ (that is, hated) researcher in history.

In 1956, William Shockley was about to change the world. A year later, he had become a ridiculous and ridiculed footnote to history. This zig-zag of a life should be a lesson to today’s Silicon Valley tech titans, whose hubris sometimes might be said to rival that of Shockley.


Andrew Keen