William Shockley knew the invention would make his reputation as a scientist and inventor. He and his team at Bell Labs had been working on a smaller, more durable transistor to conduct electricity. Finally, they did it. Everyone knew their innovation would revolutionize the electronics industry.
The problem? Shockley didn’t directly invent the device. Instead, two of his underlings — Walter Brattain and Paul Bardeen — did, putting in years of hard work. And they had the nerve to leave his name off the patent, though he was their supervisor and Brattain and Bardeen had consulted with him erratically throughout their invention process.
The situation was delicate, and political. Bell Labs knew Shockley deserved some credit as the director of Brattain and Bardeen’s work group. They also knew Shockley was intensely disliked by many who worked with him. Though respected for his intellect and brilliance, he was difficult to get along with, arrogant and cold. Shockley knew he was disliked as well. He would have to fight to gain any credit for the new transistor.
So he did something many would see as sneaky: he invented an improvement on the new device without consulting Brattain or Bardeen, which would make it easier to manufacture. He put his own name on this patent. Then, he finagled some provisions from Bell: any photo of the inventors of the transistor had to include Shockley. Any story written about the new transistor had to attribute the credit to all three scientists. And as the publicity poured in — and it did, with countless articles written about the invention — Shockley would function as the group spokesman.
Brattain and Bardeen weren’t happy with the situation. But Shockley was fighting for posterity, for his name to be in the same breath as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. What were a few underlings’ feelings next to that? Shockley was accustomed to alienating people. That was a small price to pay for his place in history.
Today, of course, few remember William Shockley, though his work formed the foundation of the modern electronic era and his later business ventures laid the groundwork for Silicon Valley. But the Valley prefers to forget his very existence — no thanks to Shockley’s own willful self-destruction.
Shockley would never again reach the heights of acclaim after the invention of the transistor. Instead, his own self-engineered downfall was swift and dramatic. He’s a tragic Greek hero for the modern age — a would-be titan blessed with incredible talents, but doomed to squander it due to his fatal flaws. His story is an object lesson that scientific genius doesn’t compensate for a disturbing lack of self-knowledge, empathy and humility. Grandiose tech leaders of today: take notice. Because history has a funny way of repeating itself.
Shockley was born on February 13, 1910, in London to well-educated, erudite Americans. His father, a mining engineer, had a talent for foreign languages. His mother, a Stanford graduate in art and mathematics, was the first female U.S. mining surveyor.
Despite these advantages, his childhood was anything but happy. The family was private, but deeply suspicious and paranoid. They scratched a living moving from place to place, escaping imaginary persecution from imaginary enemies. Shockley was kept out of school, instead educated at home, so he never played or socialized with children, permanently stunting his social skills.
From a young age, Shockley was uncontrollable. According to his father’s diary, at just one month old, he “gives signs of having a violent temper” — kicking and biting uncontrollably. At age three, he even threw a stone at a dog’s face.
When his father died in 1925, his mother settled the family in California, allowing him to ride out his remaining high school years. In 1928, Shockley attended the California Institute of Technology, choosing to study physics. At the time, quantum physics was a productive, fertile area of innovation, and Caltech was beginning to ascend as a research institution.
According to Joel Shurkin in “Broken Genius,” he absorbed the intellectual cross-currents with an astonishing ease, even seeming to flourish personally, known for his love of practical jokes on campus.
Then, he went on to get his PhD at MIT, where he was surrounded by an elite group of scientists at the forefront of physics and engineering. Well-known for his problem-solving prowess, he was able to look at a problem and solve it faster than anyone else. He was also able to absorb a complex amount of knowledge quickly and easily. Many predicted great things of the young scholar.
But Shockley still struggled personally. Despite his love of jokes, he was considered cold, arrogant and argumentative. Yet he still managed to form a few alliances. One of his mentors, Philip Morse — a well-known, well-connected scientist in his own right — helped Shockley land a job at the fabled Bell Laboratories, already a renowned hub of innovation.
Shockley needed the job — he had impregnated an acquaintance of his mother’s during graduate school, and married her and together raised a little girl. Though the marriage was never warm, and Shockley a distant, aloof father, he remained dutiful and conscientious, though not without resentment.
Shockley joined Bell just as World War I gained momentum, so he directed much of his research towards the war effort. In the Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group, he helped the Navy more effectively detect and attack German U-boats. He even devised ways for Navy convoys to elude German bombers.
During this time, he also designed one of the first nuclear reactors in the world, almost by accident, according to PBS. Nuclear fission in the late 1930s was baffling scientists, but within two months of being assigned the task, Shockley, along with friend James Fisk, came up with an idea that made the chain reactions needed by a reactor possible.
His design was immediately sent to Washington.
The response, however, was odd. Washington immediately labeled the design as classified, and then, thwarted any attempts by Bell Labs, Shockley or Fisk to patent it.
Eventually, Shockley worked with the Army Air Corps, where he helped train bombers. He became one of the highest ranking scientists in the war effort, traveling around the world and privy to key American secrets that helped them win the war. He won the National Medal of Merit for his contributions.
Despite accolades and accomplishments, Shockley was growing into a deeply unhappy man. Unhappily married, his distant, aloof personality escalated into often cold psychological cruelty towards his wife, young daughter and newborn son. What little affection or attention in the family created a toxic atmosphere of contempt and indifference.
The man who could solve any problem couldn’t seem to solve the riddles of his own unhappiness, blaming others’ so-called stupidity for his anger and rage.
His haven, however, was his work, and after the war, he retreated into Bell Labs, where he headed up the solid-state physics team. He quickly rose up the ranks, and spotted and recruited other top scientific minds, though he was less able to manage, motivate and inspire loyalty in them. At the office, he was distant yet prickly when approached — either leaving his team to fend for themselves or micro-managing them.
He was well-respected for his intellect, acumen and abilities, but little loved for his tantrums, rages and petty office politics. Still, his strengths and weaknesses would come into play with the invention that made his early reputation.
Shockley and his team were trying to find a better way to conduct electricity in devices other than the then-ubiquitous vacuum tubes, which were fragile and bulky. Shockley believed that a strong electrical charge would start a flow of electricity within a nearby semi-conductor, an idea he called “field effect.” Rather than work on a better conduit for this idea himself, two of his underlings — Brattain and Bardeen — built upon his theories.
In 1946, they began work on a solid-state amplifier, but could not get it to work.
The problem bedeviled the team, but Brattain and Bardeen kept at it, occasionally conferring with Shockley, who gave them guidance and suggested direction. Finally, in 1947, Brattain and Bardeen succeeded, creating a point-contact transistor.
Shockley was in a predicament. He knew his team had accomplished a major scientific innovation that would change the face of modern electronics.
“Every transistor that powers the electronic age, the tens of millions now in our homes and offices, in our computers, watches, ovens, airplanes, CAT scan equipment, cars, fax machines, cameras, spaceships, and yes, our telephones, is a descendant of that device,” Joel Shurkin wrote in “Broken Genius.” “Shockley’s feat… was his life’s greatest accomplishment. It changed the world.”
The invention of the modern transistor — and the quandary over credit — put Bell Labs in a difficult situation. So Shockley leaned on another one of his talents: the ability to manipulate the masses. The provisions he got out of Bell to retain credit as co-inventor guaranteed his place in history. While Brattain and Bardeen had no interest of being famous, Bell’s provisions rankled them greatly, and the dislike both men had for Shockley escalated into something more intense.
The press often attributed the invention of the modern transistor to Shockley only, since he was the most prominent scientist of the group. Shockley, however, was conscientious about correcting the record and made sure Brattain and Bardeen received co-credit — even once writing to Newsweek to correct an article that neglected to mention them.
But Shockley was also aggressive about making sure he was included as well, saying he had “initiated and directed” the research program that Brattain and Bardeen worked within. While Brattain and Bardeen didn’t court the spotlight themselves, they also didn’t appreciate Shockley’s efforts to become the face of their invention.
Shockley also indulged in other political maneuvers designed to push forward his own status, often at the cost of his colleagues. Besides working in secret on his own improvements on Bardeen and Brattain’s work, he kept them from working on later improvement projects on their own design.
In 1956, the three men shared the Nobel Prize. But despite the great accolade, scientists often wondered if Shockley deserved such a large part of the credit. Brattain and Bardeen, both of whom were well-liked in the scientific community, became bitter — Brattain refused to work under Shockley at Bell, and Bardeen quit rather than work with him as well.
Shockley’s reputation soared — though whether he deserved that reputation entirely remained a topic of debate. As he hit his professional zenith, his personal life hit some new lows. His wife — nearly estranged by this point — contracted uterine cancer. While Shockley helped to direct her care, he also announced he was leaving her during her treatment. A year later, in 1955, he met a psychiatric nurse, whom he married and remained with for over 30 years.
Shockley easily dominated his wife, who became an extension of his cold, domineering personality and ideas, but his second marriage would stay the most enduring relationship of his life, even as his life took unexpected, even ignoble turns.
With the upsurge of reputation, the marriage and the Nobel Prize, Shockley began to develop a grandiose dream. He knew the transistor he and his team invented would change the face of consumer electronics, and he wanted to capitalize on the momentum. He decided to leave Bell and partner with entrepreneur Arnold Beckman to manufacture semiconductors.
He also decided to decamp to Palo Alto, where his elderly mother settled. Shockley reasoned the proximity to Stanford and Caltech would be a recruiting advantage, and the area’s natural beauty and fabled proximity to San Francisco, the mountains and the ocean would attract talent. He used his ability to spot and lure the best scientists to begin building his company, Shockley Semiconductors. Though he didn’t realize it, he was laying the groundwork for Silicon Valley.
To outsiders, his new venture seemed a guaranteed success. Internally, however, the company faltered at the beginning. Shockley was determined never to experience the same problems he had with Brattain and Bardeen again — but he went about preventing the problems in the wrong way. He was convinced he was a brilliant manager of talent, but he was known by his workers as an arrogant, interfering, tactless boss who was unwilling to listen and pitted people against one another.
The cold suspicion and paranoia reminiscent of his parents, always latent in his character, became more overt, and he was quick to lash out and attack others. For example, Shockley once ordered lie detector tests on his employees in response to a cut on a secretary’s finger, which he believed was a malicious act of sabotage by a rival company, according to the book “Crystal Fire.” Even his friends found it difficult to defend Shockley — one noted he had a kind of “reverse charisma,” where people often took an instant dislike to him when he walked in a room.
Less than a year after he won the Nobel Prize, eight of his best scientists quit rather than deal with Shockley. Known as the “traitorous eight,” they formed their own businesses that would rival Shockley Semiconductor. Two of them — Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce — formed Fairchild Semiconductor, which later became Intel.
People like Moore and Noyce earned riches beyond imagination and influenced the direction of the emerging electronic age. As the Santa Clara Valley developed into the nexus of innovation and wealth known as Silicon Valley, Shockley could only stand aside and watch bitterly as his rivals grew rich and powerful, thanks to products and innovations that used his original transistor design.
Shockley Semiconductor, however, floundered, unable to capitalize on its head start, and eventually the company eased out its namesake and founder. He became a deeply embittered man, condemned to watch others he saw as inferior succeed where he failed. The so-called traitorous eight ended up founding 65 different enterprises that formed the nucleus of Silicon Valley. Shockley, however, was left, despite his Nobel Prize and his hard-fought reputation.
Shockley picked up the pieces after his personal failure in the Valley, joining Stanford as a professor of engineering and applied science. Though never popular, he was considered a knowledgeable professor known for his intellect and his rigor. He also developed an interest in magic, and became an amateur magician known for his love of tricks, and explored mountain climbing as a hobby.
Shockley might have retreated into the twilight of academia, content with his quiet life and a rare domestic contentment with his second wife. Instead, he opened up the Los Angeles Times one day and read a story about a black teenager with an I.Q. of 65, who attacked a deli owner with acid. The teen was the son of a woman with an I.Q. of 55, who couldn’t even remember the name of all 17 of her children.
The story shocked Shockley. He saw it as proof that the major causes of non-white people’s problems in the U.S. were genetic and hereditary, and no amount of social intervention could help them.
“I asked myself what people I knew who had families that large. I could think of none. Apparently, these large families were those of people who were not making it in our society, so that those with the least intelligence were having the most children,” Shockley said, according to SPLC. “The more I talked to people about this, the more alarmed I became.”
As a result, Shockley became interested in the now-debunked idea of eugenics — the study of race as a biological idea — which would lead him to an entirely different kind of infamy and notoriety. He began to work tirelessly to promote these ideas, using whatever platform he had.
He became convinced that the higher reproductive rate of non-white races would dilute the intelligence of humankind, and he discounted the idea that the inequalities of race were due to economics, social structure and history. He instead believed the differences between races had an inherent genetic basis, which he wanted to study scientifically. Even though he was not trained as a geneticist or in the biological sciences — and his ideas were condemned by the Stanford genetics faculty as “pseudo-scientific justification for class and race prejudice” — he began to direct his energies in this direction.
His embrace of racist eugenics — now widely disproven — was incendiary in the 1960s as the civil rights movement gained momentum. It also put him in the company of similarly minded historical figures as Adolf Hitler. Eugenists advocated ideas such as forced sterilization of criminals, mentally “undesirable races,” and those deemed genetically inferior; racial purity; bans on mixed-race relationships and other now-questionable policies.
Shockley embraced many of these ideas as well, advocating for programs that would pay minority and low I.Q. women to undergo sterilization. He believed the mostly black families on welfare should be sterilized so their reproduction wouldn’t further dilute human intelligence. He also proclaimed his donation of sperm to a supposed elite “Nobel sperm bank” to help create more superior human beings.
He never failed to proclaim these ideas in interviews and articles, embarrassing the academic and scientific communities that once respected him. He seemed to enjoy the notoriety. His lack of emotional intelligence also played a part, however, and he had no idea how his statements — which he saw as rational and logical — came across to others. His trademark paranoia and suspicion infected his relationships with the press, and he began taping and transcribing phone conversations with reporters and entertained the idea of making them take a test about his work before talking with him.
More dangerously for his reputation, Shockley’s views put him in contact with a large machinery of white nationalist supremacists, who were more than happy to induct a Nobel Prize winner into their ranks. He enjoyed being embraced by these new bedfellows — and he was happy to accept the money provided by their think tanks, and the attention and notoriety offered by their media.
He started his own nonprofit devoted to eugenics, Foundation for Research and Education on Eugenics and Dysgenics, or FREED. Between 1969 and 1976, he received nearly $1.5 million to fund his research by notoriously racist think tank Pioneer Fund, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yet, he actually did little to no research with this money, instead using FREED as a publicity platform for his efforts. Through FREED, he produced newsletters that described appearances, issued press releases and published his articles and editorials of his opinions, which were often not based on any real research.
Shockley squandered the respect he once earned as a Nobel Prize winner, and found himself roundly condemned in the mainstream media for his views on race and genetics. In 1981, he sued the Atlanta Constitution, which called him a “Hitlerite” for his ideas. Shockley didn’t see himself as racist, but elitist, and believed anyone of inferior intelligence should not reproduce. A jury found the paper libeled Shockley, but awarded him just $1 in actual damages, suggesting that his reputation by then was not worth very much anymore, according to Shurkin.
Shockley’s life gradually shrank into a twilight of isolation. He eventually stopped teaching, though he remained associated with Stanford, who gave him a small room on campus to stay in. One by one, his few friends dropped him, and his supporters in the white supremacist groups let him languish once they realized no one cared about him anymore.
Silicon Valley — and the pace of innovation — moved on without him, and he never again invented anything of note. After he called his own children an evolutionary “regression,” they refused to have much to do with him. They only found out about his death in 1989 though newspaper obituaries.
His wife didn’t hold funeral services, because both she and Stanford decided no one would come.
Today, Shockley is nearly forgotten by the mainstream due to his association with white supremacists, his championing of eugenics and perhaps his own cold, difficult personality. While revered even today among white nationalists and other racist ideologues for his contributions to their causes, most of the rest of the world has little idea who he is.
Shockley’s scientific achievements in electronics were undeniable — without his work, the computers, tablets, radios, TVs and appliances we use would not be possible. Even his failed business efforts played a role in establishing Silicon Valley, one of the world’s most powerful epicenters of business and innovation shaping our daily lives and experience.
Yet his achievements are difficult to untangle from his difficult, deeply unpleasant character and the notoriety he courted in the company of undoubtedly racist organizations and people, who were more than happy to cozy up to Shockley to legitimize their ranks. As a result, the reputation and legacy he fought hard and often bitterly for eroded into nothing by the end of his life.
Some historians and biographers today attempt to add complexity to Shockley’s biography, clarifying that he was not the typical white supremacist racist — they believe he wanted to apply the cool, rational processes of science to the study of race, and instead truly believed that the intellectually gifted should rule humankind, no matter what race they are. Others try to account for his difficult, paranoid, sometimes cruel personality, surmising he had an autism disorder or even paranoid personality disorder. Yet even these more sympathetic portrayals can’t quite erase the bitter aftertaste of his legacy.
Some might wonder why we need to remember such notoriously flawed, difficult figures like Shockley. Perhaps it’s because it’s worth remembering that even in the most modern times, there are still classically flawed tragic heroes, like in the Greek tragedies of old: people gifted with great talent, but who create their own downfalls due to their own unexamined fatal flaws and ideas.
Shockley destroyed his legacy with his association with a hateful ideology, but it was his paranoia, lack of empathy and love of ego and notoriety that really engineered his downfall. But even now, we’re fascinated by mercurial personalities of today’s tech leaders, gifted with talent and genius and yet with their own flaws and blind spots, which show themselves in flawed approaches to hot-button topics like privacy.
The dark flip side to the Valley’s almost messianic possibility and optimism is the ancient tragic flaw of hubris. Hubris brought down Shockley, but he likely won’t be the last genius brought down low by extreme pride, arrogance and elitism. As the history of Silicon Valley writes itself, we move relentlessly forward into the future — but we often forget the lessons of the willfully forgotten past. ♦