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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

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.

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