William Shockley gets lost in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is synonymous with technology. Over the past 50 years, an area of northern California once known for orchards and farms has become home to the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel and Hewlett-Packard.

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William Shockley (centre) in 1948 with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, the inventors of the transistor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Its beginnings can be found in businessman Leland Stanford’s decision to build and fund a modern research university at Palo Alto. Stanford University opened on 1 October 1891, and immediately attracted bright engineering and science students, along with government and corporate research funds.

As Ken Auletta wrote in New Yorker magazine in 2012, “one of the first big tech companies in Silicon Valley – Federal Telegraph, which produced radios – was started by a young Stanford graduate in 1909”.

Auletta tells how Frederick Terman, an engineer who joined the faculty in 1925 and became the dean of the school of engineering after World War II, is often called “the father of Silicon Valley”.

In the 1930s, Terman encouraged two of his students, William Hewlett and David Packard, “to construct in a garage a new line of audio oscillators that became the first product of the Hewlett-Packard Company”.

“Terman nurtured start-ups by creating the Stanford Industrial Park, which leased land to tech firms like Hewlett-Packard… He encouraged his faculty to serve as paid consultants to corporations, as he did, to welcome tech companies on campus, and to persuade them to subsidise research and fellowships for Stanford’s brightest students.”

But in an endeavour as vast as Silicon Valley, it seems only fair that more than one man carries the label of “father”.

Joel Shurkin, author of the 2006 book Broken Genius: A Biography of William B. Shockley, says of his subject: “He is the father of Silicon Valley; he knew more than anybody in the world the importance of these machines, these transistors; he knew he was revolutionising the world… Unfortunately, he was a terrible manager and he never had the chance.”

William Shockley was born in London, England, on 13 February 1910. His father was an American mining engineer from Massachusetts, and in 1913 the family returned to the US, settling in Palo Alto.

Shockley graduated from the California Institute of Technology, in Los Angeles, and earned a PhD from the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936.

Silicon valley
Credit: Dicklyon / English Wikipedia

After MIT he went to work at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, one of the country’s leading research facilities, where he became director of the transistor physics department.

Back at Bell after World War II, Shockley was put in charge of a project to find a technology that could replace vacuum tubes.

The PBS program describes how he recruited Walter Brattain and John Bardeen for the project, and that it was those two, with Shockley acting mainly as a supervisor, who achieved a breakthrough on 16 December 1947, producing the point-contact transistor.

“Shockley was both proud of their accomplishment and furious that they had succeeded where he had failed. A few weeks later, he leapfrogged the point-contact device by inventing and designing the sandwich transistor.”

The trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.

A 2017 article in Wired magazine, by Scott Rosenberg, carrying the headline “Silicon Valley’s first founder was its worst”, says in 1956 Shockley left Bell, “gathered a platoon of young engineering hotshots”, and moved to Palo Alto, where he launched Shockley Semiconductor.

“Shockley is why the Valley today grows chips instead of apricots,” Rosenberg says.

“But Shockley Semiconductor failed miserably, largely because its founder was the tech industry’s original bad boss. Shockley was an archetypal mis-manager, driving his employees so crazy that they quit en masse after just one year and started their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. That company became the root of the tech industry’s corporate family tree and begat Intel, Kleiner Perkins, and other iconic firms.”

Shockley drifted into espousing discredited theories about race and social engineering theories such as eugenics. As PBS says, “He was vilified, ridiculed, humiliated, and eventually forgotten”.

He died of prostate cancer on 12 August 1989.

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