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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

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.

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