The Twisted Legacy of William Shockley

Michael A. Hiltzik last wrote for the magazine about how DVDs changed filmmaking

The event depicted in the photograph belongs to a familiar genre: the triumphal luncheon. At the head of a long table draped in white linen and covered with drained wine bottles and half-empty coffee cups sits Bill Shockley, square-jawed and grinning widely in a Hawaiian shirt, flanked by 11 of the smartest engineers and physicists in America. They are all on his payroll.

It is Nov. 2, 1956, in Palo Alto, the day after the Nobel Prize committee has made Shockley one of the most famous physicists in the world. Co-inventor of the transistor, the freshly minted laureate presides over a team looking for all the world like the proud inheritors of the future: Lured to Northern California by Bill Shockley, they stand poised to revolutionize industry by exploiting the new science of silicon-based electronics.

Several of them will go on to fulfill exactly that dream. Among those hoisting congratulatory wine glasses are the two future founders of the giant Intel Corp., one of whom will also become known as the inventor of the integrated circuit. Many of the others will go on to found their own companies, the bedrock of an industry that will eventually cover the rolling landscape of a place to be known as Silicon Valley.


This vision of vast industrial growth enriching its pioneers beyond anyone’s comprehension is Bill Shockley’s brainchild. He came west from Bell Labs in New Jersey determined, as he told friends, to make a million dollars, a goal that in the mid-1950s seemed the peak of hubris. He chose to establish his new company in Palo Alto for reasons that included its proximity to Stanford University, the allure of the Northern California climate, and the seemingly limitless room for expansion into the surrounding fruit orchards, all factors in the valley’s explosive growth to come.

He recruited the first cadre of talented scientists and engineers to the place and then inspired them--if inadvertently--to go off and establish their own enterprises. Anyone can stand today at the geographic center of Silicon Valley and say of Shockley what was said of Christopher Wren and his London: “If you would see his monument, look around.” But almost alone among those gathered around the table that day, Shockley never enjoyed the fruits of his own vision. Instead of living out his life famous and beloved as the co-inventor of one of the most useful devices known to man and the progenitor of the richest industrial development in the world, he ended his days an object of worldwide scorn, his name synonymous with a racism dressed up with the misleading authority of science.

It was a most outlandish outcome for a life that began with exceptional promise. “I called him the Moses of Silicon Valley,” recalled Fred Seitz, a boyhood friend who himself grew up into an eminent scientist. “He led his people there, but he never made it himself into the promised land.”

california’s roster of nobel laureates includes several individuals who made contributions almost as important to the state as to their sciences. Robert Millikan, for example, who won the 1923 Nobel in physics for determining the elementary charge of the electron, went on to convert the California Institute of Technology from a provincial trade school into the world-class science and technical institution it is today. Ernest O. Lawrence, who won his physics Nobel in 1939 for the invention of the cyclotron, the first nuclear particle accelerator, made Berkeley the center of particle physics research and helped establish the University of California system as a center of government-funded basic research.

Yet not even those who ended up despising Bill Shockley--and his detractors are legion--would deny that his contribution to California’s industrial stature ranks first among those of the state’s laureates. It was Shockley who enticed to California the young scientists who would turn the Santa Clara Valley into the world’s foremost incubator of innovation and wealth. It was he who set them to work exploring the electrical properties of the element silicon. “He brought the silicon to Silicon Valley,” says Gordon Moore, who joined Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Palo Alto as a young physicist in 1956.

And it was Shockley who drove them out into the world, starting with eight scientists among the 11 who had gathered behind him that day in 1956 to toast his Nobel. “What made our departure from Shockley important was the idea of companies spinning off from other companies,” says Moore. “That really developed from Shockley.”


Brilliant and visionary within his chosen field, dogmatically misguided when he strayed outside it and monstrously insensitive to the mortals around him, Shockley resembled a Richard Wagner of science, inspirational and despicable in equal measure.

The first judgment levied on the youthful William Bradford Shockley was a dour one. It came from his father, a mining engineer descended from John Alden of the Mayflower, who in 1910, shortly after the child’s birth in London, described him in a letter as “no world-beater.” (This letter was bequeathed to Stanford University along with the rest of the exhaustive family archives.)

Shortly after the family returned to the United States, Shockley senior revised his appraisal, for his son had turned into a temperamental and demanding charge. Until the age of 8, he was schooled at home in Palo Alto, in part because his cultured and intelligent parents disdained public schools but also because of his disposition to violent tantrums. “Anger is about the only emotion he displays, with a little love at times,” read another of his father’s letters, unearthed in the Stanford archives by the authors of “Crystal Fire,” a 1997 book about the birth of the transistor age.

By the time of his graduation from Hollywood High School in 1927--the family had moved south four years earlier--Shockley was displaying both a talent for science and a personal haughtiness acquired from his classmates, who included the children of movieland royalty. Shockley fancied himself to be a “cross between Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Bulldog Drummond, with perhaps a dash of Ronald Colman,” recalled Seitz, who accompanied Shockley on a 1932 cross-country drive from California, where Shockley had just graduated from Caltech, to their graduate schools on the East Coast.

As they made their way east, Seitz found Shockley to be companionable, if startlingly headstrong. Among other things, he was given to firing a pistol he kept in the glove compartment to scare off coyotes. One night this roused the police, who alerted locals to the presence in the area of two unknown desperadoes. (Seitz and Shockley learned of the warning from a gas station attendant misled by their clean-cut appearance. “He suggested we keep a lookout,” Seitz recalled.)

Seitz remembers being deeply impressed by two of his partner’s personality traits. The first was his creative scientific intelligence, “the ability to seek out the core issues in a scientific problem and bring them to the surface in a dramatically clear way, with the use of either theoretical or experimental measures.” The second was his arrogance: “He was inclined to believe that society should be governed by what one might regard as an intellectually elite group.”

“It was in his blood,” he added later. “He felt he was the most important person.”

After dropping Seitz off at Princeton, Shockley continued on to MIT, where he plunged into quantum mechanics, the new physics that had scored a breakthrough in describing and predicting the behavior of subatomic particles in their infinitesimal world. Quantum mechanics, then as now, was rife with counterintuitive phenomena: electrons that vanished from one location and simultaneously appeared somewhere else; forces that behaved sometimes like waves and sometimes like particles; equations that resisted the precise measurements so beloved of classical physics, and could only be minutely approximated.

Yet, as Shockley perceived, the new science opened a window into understanding the behavior of electrons in crystalline substances. It was the essence of what would become known as “solid-state” physics, which explained the electrical conductance of crystalline materials in terms of whether their electrons had sufficient energy to jump from atom to atom in the crystal lattice, or were tightly bound in place.

When Shockley left MIT with his PhD in 1936 to join Bell Laboratories, he was promptly enlisted in the effort to exploit solid-state technology to replace Bell’s antiquated network technology.

For 20 years the “Audion,” a specialized vacuum tube, had anchored Ma Bell’s dominance of the transcontinental phone business. Before its invention, AT&T; had been able to transmit phone calls about 2,000 miles; farther than that and the signal became overwhelmed by static and conversation was rendered impossible.

The audion functioned as an amplifier. As invented by Lee de Forest, the tube consisted of two electrodes with an electrical current flowing from one to the other; between them was a third electrode, known as a “grid.” Applying voltage to the grid would increase the current running between the other two electrodes like the turning of a valve, amplifying the electrical signal. In 1914, AT&T; launched its first transcontinental phone line, with vacuum tube “repeaters” installed at Pittsburgh, Omaha and Salt Lake City, and coast-to-coast phone service was born.

Vacuum tubes, however, were a maintenance headache: big, costly, hot and prone to blowing out like cheap lightbulbs. Bell technicians believed an alternative might be found in semiconductors such as germanium and silicon. Neither metals nor insulators, these materials are nonconducting in their natural state. They can, however, be coaxed into carrying an electric current by the addition of minute impurities such as phosphorus or boron, which allow electrons in the crystalline mixture to move about freely, the prerequisite for the flow of electricity.

Following World War II, Bell Labs placed Shockley in charge of semiconductor research. Within two years this work had borne fruit. Two gifted experimenters on Shockley’s team, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen, had figured out a way to apply an electric field to a block of germanium and thereby amplify a secondary current traveling through the block.

The Brattain-Bardeen device had evolved, if distantly, from a solid-state amplifier Shockley had sketched out in 1945. This was based on a slab of silicon infused with impurities, or “doped,” and placed under an electric field. But Shockley’s device could not be made to work, thanks to a peculiarity of physics that was only resolved years later (by Bardeen). Brattain and Barden’s device, while employing the principles that Shockley had discovered, utilized a different design. Their invention, promptly named the “transistor,” was a historic triumph of American corporate research. Nevertheless, it quickly drove a wedge between them and their boss.

Shockley by then had already become one of the less-popular managers at Bell Labs. While colleagues acknowledged his intellectual gifts, they also resented him as an inveterate credit hog. “Every once in a while we’d come up with a patentable device or process,” recalls John L. Moll, a physicist who worked on a rival team at Bell. “We’d always have a meeting with the patent attorneys, he’d always be at the meeting, and he’d always claim that anything I could think of was already in his notebook.”

In the case of the transistor, the friction point was Bell’s patent application, which listed Brattain and Bardeen and omitted Shockley’s name. Convinced that his 1945 work on the field effect was a foundation of the invention, an infuriated Shockley demanded joint credit, which only affronted Brattain and Bardeen. As Brattain later told an interviewer, he erupted in anger during a meeting on the subject. “Oh, hell, Shockley,” he exclaimed, “there’s enough glory in this for everybody!”

Bell eventually filed a second patent application to mollify Shockley. But his insistence on representing himself as a co-equal on the inventing team continued to rankle the others. As Bell Labs prepared to announce its breakthrough to the world in 1948, it arranged to shoot a publicity photo of its three stars. The shot, which appeared on the cover of a trade magazine that September, was designed as a testament to the seamless institutional collegiality of Bell Laboratories: Shockley, seated in the foreground, intently manipulated a complicated apparatus while Bardeen and Brattain stood over him shoulder to shoulder. It was a photograph Brattain always detested. The apparatus was his own, and the day of the photo shoot marked the first and last time William Shockley ever laid hands on it.

As the transistor and its related technologies began to bring a cascade of royalties to AT&T;, Shockley unexpectedly found his career stalling at Bell Labs. The reason was his personality, which alienated his staff and management peers alike; Bardeen and Brattain had hinted that they would quit Bell rather than report to him any longer. For his part, Shockley felt underappreciated and underpaid; with a bluntness uncharacteristic of the engineering culture of the day, he told friends that he yearned to start his own company and make a million dollars. “It was ego,” recalled Seitz. “The money was a symbol to him.”

After weighing several offers, he struck a deal in 1955 with Arnold O. Beckman, the Los Angeles-based millionaire founder of Beckman Instruments. Beckman pledged to finance a state-of-the-art semiconductor research and development facility for Shockley, to be located wherever the scientist thought best.

His decision to establish Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Palo Alto was motivated by two factors. For one thing, Stanford’s engineering dean, Frederick Terman, was determined to make his university the center of a burgeoning new industrial complex. For another, Shockley’s devoted mother, May, lived in town. At the beginning of 1956 he moved west with his second wife, a psychiatric nurse named Emmy, and started assembling a team.

Overbearing and arrogant as a manager, Shockley was a superb judge of research talent and a seductive recruiter. “He could charm the pants off you,” recalls C. Sheldon Roberts, who was a young metallurgist at Dow Chemical in snowy Michigan when Shockley got his name from a former teacher at MIT and invited him to visit California. Although the visit occurred during a rare March cold snap that froze the fountains at his Palo Alto motel, Roberts found California as attractive as Shockley hoped it would be, and signed up.

Just as alluring was Shockley’s intellect. During his recruiting interview, Jay Last, doing his MIT graduate work in crystallography, mentioned an intractable problem he was having with his thesis work; Shockley mulled over the problem and promptly delivered a solution. Although acquaintances at Bell Labs, where Last was also interviewing, warned him against joining up with Shockley (“You’re making a mistake going to work for this guy”), Last was intrigued by the chance to tap directly into this superb theoretical mind. At Bell Labs, he reasoned, he might simply vanish into the vast corporate bureaucracy.

In a converted Quonset hut south of the Stanford campus, Roberts and Last reported for work in early 1956 along with a few dozen other young men from whose brains and labor would spring the Silicon Valley of legend. It was not long before some of them learned the downside to working for their erratic boss. Shockley had wisely assembled a multidisciplinary staff including physicists, chemists, engineers and technicians, but he seemed constitutionally unable to leave them to their own devices. Increasingly they found themselves laboring under his relentless second-guessing.

“When he hired you, you were the greatest person in the world,” says Roberts. “Then slowly you worked your way down the line. First you were brilliant. Then, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ Then, ‘You’re capable, but I’m unsure about you . . . . Now I’m really unsure . . . . Now I think you’re inadequate. I don’t think you can do the job for me.’ He kept a black book on everybody.”

The company turned into a workshop for Shockley’s volatile notions about management. He would fire people in public and summarily demote PhDs who displeased him to production-line jobs. Senior employees summoned to Shockley’s office would often discover his wife, Emmy, seated in a corner, silently taking notes. “Emmy treated everyone as a lab experiment,” Roberts commented.

Shockley also had difficulty focusing on the main objective of his lab, which was the production of industrial-grade semiconductor devices. Instead he got constantly sidetracked by theoretical projects such as the development of a four-layer semiconductor diode, a farsighted, even brilliant idea that, typically, was far beyond the technical capabilities of the time. “He could generate enough ideas to keep a pretty large research group chasing them down,” says Moore. But blue-sky research was not the company’s mission, and the lack of progress on product development frustrated the staff.

Those concerns receded, at least temporarily, on the morning of Nov. 1, 1956, when the Nobel committee announced that it had awarded the physics prize to Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain for the invention of the transistor.

The first news reporters seeking comment started calling Shockley at 7 a.m. in California. It was not until the next day at lunch that he found time to be feted by his senior staff at a Palo Alto restaurant. For the moment the tensions of the workplace appeared to be put aside. Shockley’s company was scarcely 9 months old and struggling, but he was now famous the world over.

Real life, however, has a way of reasserting itself even in the midst of the headiest personal triumph. Within weeks of the Nobel, the atmosphere at Shockley Semiconductor was worse than ever, its leader more unpredictable and manipulative than before. “I felt that the mantle of fame was falling heavily on his shoulders,” says Seitz.

The paranoid environment at Shockley Semiconductor reached its climax the following March, with an incident that staff members would forever remember as the “pin affair.”

It started quietly, with an office assistant complaining about having cut her hand on a sharp object lodged in a door. The injury set Shockley off on a paranoid fit. Convinced the lab had been sabotaged, he ordered polygraph tests for two low-level technicians and, when these came back negative, ordered them for everyone on the payroll. Appalled, the senior staff flatly refused, but Shockley did not relent until Sheldon Roberts placed the offending pin under a microscope and determined that it was simply the remains of a thumbtack whose head had broken off.

The incident gave the staff a crystal-clear, if unnerving, window into their boss’s personality. A couple of months later, Arnold Beckman flew to Palo Alto on a baleful mission. Profits at Beckman Instruments had been shrinking, in part because research and development costs were out of control. When he informed Shockley that his unit would have to refocus its energies on production, Shockley angrily blurted out: “I can take this group and work anywhere else!”

The senior staff in the room were amazed by the scale of Shockley’s self-deception; the fact was that not a single one of them would follow him anywhere. It was now clear that the company’s future was at stake. After discussing the matter among themselves, Gordon Moore and seven other top scientists decided to relate their misgivings to Beckman.

It fell to Moore to phone Beckman as his colleagues listened in. In an era when most companies were run on strictly hierarchical terms, the entire group understood the grave breach of protocol they were committing by going over Shockley’s head. “I can still hear the quaver in Gordon’s voice when he asked for Beckman on the phone,” Last recalls.

To their relief, Beckman proved a willing listener to their suggestion that he essentially kick Shockley upstairs to continue his theorizing while he brought in an experienced production manager. “We were a long way from a product, and he was very receptive to what we were suggesting,” Moore says. Beckman even had a candidate in mind: a manager from one of his other divisions.

But Beckman soon backed off for reasons none of them ever fully understood. It was true that Shockley was furious that the team he had assembled and nurtured could betray him. Some believed that one of Shockley’s old colleagues at Bell Labs had reminded Beckman of Shockley’s stature as a Nobel laureate and warned that removing him from the management of his own company would be a crushing blow.

Whatever the reason, the eight understood that without Beckman in their corner, their position had become untenable. “We could see that the revolt had failed,” says Last. Their only option was to find another company that might hire them as a group. At one point they sat down together with a copy of the Wall Street Journal and scanned its stock listing. “We identified every company we could think of that might conceivably have an interest in semiconductors,” says Moore. “There were 35, and they all turned us down.”

A contact of theirs at a New York investment firm had suggested an alternative, however: start their own company. Presently the contact turned up a backer. This was the New York industrialist Sherman Fairchild, who thought his high-altitude photography business might be able to exploit the size and efficiency of semiconductor devices. To get Fairchild Semiconductor started he pledged $30,000 in seed capital, in return for an option to buy out the team on a sliding scale, ranging from $2 million after two years to $5 million after five.

The last step was to formally cut the cord with Bill Shockley. On Sept. 18, 1957, Shockley, who had got wind of the planned desertion, started calling the senior staff into his office one by one. “He started with the people he thought were most loyal to him,” says Moore, who was one of the first to be summoned.

Moore’s relationship with Shockley had remained cordial; as a chemist he had never been treated with quite the arrogance and condescension Shockley reserved for the physicists on the staff. But he was not inclined to sugarcoat the bad news. “I told him, ‘There’s no use in calling in the rest. They’re all going to leave.’ ”

Shockley seemed to accept the desertion with stoicism. In the ruled notebook that served as his personal journal, he tersely recorded the seismic shock that decimated his company that day with a single handwritten line: Wed 18Sep--Group resigns. But for the rest of his life he would refer to them collectively as “the traitorous eight.”

from the moment of the break, Shockley and his former recruits veered off in opposite directions. With Robert Noyce, an organizational and engineering genius, as director of research and Moore as head of production engineering, Fairchild Semiconductor began shipping transistors in 1958, about a year after the break. A few months after that, Noyce achieved the ultimate breakthrough, a way to embed numerous transistors and other devices on a single piece of silicon. This was the integrated circuit, the very first version of what would evolve into the Pentium.

Fairchild went from eight employees to 4,000 in two years. Meanwhile, Shockley Semiconductor dragged. Bill Shockley had finally succeeded in manufacturing his four-layer diode, but the quality was uneven, characteristic of an idea that was too far ahead of its time. There were more staff defections and scant revenue growth until, in 1960, a frustrated Beckman sold the semiconductor unit to another company, which sold it to a third owner in 1965.

By then Shockley was gone, having accepted an engineering professorship at Stanford in 1963. It was the first step toward the most controversial phase of his career.

For years Shockley had sustained a potent personal interest in studying intelligence and heredity. For the most part, friends found this side of Shockley innocuous, even quaint, reflected in his lifelong hobby of cultivating and training ant colonies. But now it took a corrosive turn.

The first public airing of Shockley’s evolving mind set appeared Nov. 22, 1965, in U.S. News & World Report under the headline: “Is Quality of U.S. Population Declining?” Prompted by the editors, Shockley strayed well beyond the confines of established genetics into the shoals of eugenics. He suggested that welfare and relief programs prevented natural selection from killing off “the bottom of the population”: “With improvements in technology . . . inferior strains have increased chances for survival and reproduction at the same time that birth control has tended to reduce family size among the superior elements . . . . But the whole subject is being swept under the rug.”

Invited to relate this phenomenon to racial characteristics, he continued: “If you look at the median Negro I.Q., it almost always turns out not to be as good as the median white I.Q. . . . . How much of this is genetic in origin? How much is environmental?”

“If he ever had a following, he lost it then,” says Roberts. But criticism only seemed to make him more obstinate. A career that deserved an honored position in the pantheon of scientific achievement was forgotten, superseded by the image of Shockley the racist crackpot.

As the ‘60s wore on, he became more quixotic in defense of his position. He sued the Atlanta Constitution for $1.25 million in libel damages after it published a column comparing his ideas to Nazi doctrine, and was awarded $1. In 1982 he ran on a eugenics platform for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, and finished eighth. Invited to address engineering students at a South African university on the invention of the transistor, he instead used his time to expatiate on his genetic theories, causing an international furor.

In a Playboy interview, he aired his low opinion of his three children, of whom two were college graduates, one from Radcliffe and the other from Stanford. “In terms of my own capacities . . . [they] represent a very significant regression,” he said. “My first wife--their mother--had not as high an academic-achievement standing as I had.”

His views seemed to have hardened under pressure. In 1965, he had proposed only “an objective, fact-finding . . . national research effort” into genetic disparities among the races; in 1980, he informed the Playboy interviewer that he had come “inescapably to the opinion that the major cause for the American Negroes’ intellectual and social deficits is . . . racially genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in environment.”

At Stanford faculty functions, Shockley was rendered persona non grata, shunned by old colleagues weary of being buttonholed and hectored at every opportunity. His friends fell away. “When I’d ask our old friends how Shockley was, they’d say, ‘Oh, we don’t see Bill anymore,’ ” says Seitz. At the Bohemian Club, the exclusive fraternity of upper-crust Bay Area males, “he made a nuisance of himself about the black-white thing. He would not listen.” When he demanded that Seitz, as president of the National Academy of Sciences, endorse his pet research project into racial genetics, their old friendship ended for good. The phenomenon he had launched, however unwittingly, became his most lasting legacy. The defining phenomenon of Silicon Valley, its explosive proliferation of new companies begotten from old, moved into full swing, starting with Sherman Fairchild’s decision to buy out the Shockley renegades two years after he hired them. Last, Roberts and a third Shockley defector named Jean Hoerni split off to form an integrated circuits company with backing from the conglomerate Teledyne. Another of the traitorous eight, Eugene Kleiner, would soon make his name as one of the valley’s pioneering venture capital investors. Moore and Noyce together founded one of the valley’s most enduring successes, the colossus named Intel.

“This was the founding of a new culture in business,” says Michael Riordan, co-author of “Crystal Fire,” the book about the transistor’s invention. “The fact that they could take this entrepreneurial step and succeed made it model behavior in Silicon Valley.”

Whether Shockley recognized the scale of his real contribution to society is doubtful. By 1989, when he was dying of prostate cancer, many of those who had joined him in the early exploration of semiconductor science had been rendered multimillionaires by the explosive industry they pioneered. John Bardeen, who had been relegated to the position of a lab note-taker in the famous photograph of the three transistor inventors, had won a second Nobel in 1972, for his contributions to superconductivity theory.

Shockley’s world had shrunk. As he lay on his deathbed, attended only by his second wife, Emmy, he forbid her to notify his three children that the end was near. They learned of his death from the newspapers.

“He died completely alone,” says Joel Shurkin, the author of an unpublished Shockley biography. “His life was like a Greek tragedy, without the redemption at the end.”