The Twisted Legacy of William Shockley

Perhaps No Other Nobel Laureate Had a Greater Impact on California's Industrial Stature Than the Man Who Brought the Silicon to Silicon Valley. So How Did He End Up an Object of Worldwide Scorn?

December 02, 2001|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | 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.

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