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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

By then Shockley was gone, having accepted an engineering professorship at Stanford in 1963. It was the first step toward the most controversial phase of his career.

For years Shockley had sustained a potent personal interest in studying intelligence and heredity. For the most part, friends found this side of Shockley innocuous, even quaint, reflected in his lifelong hobby of cultivating and training ant colonies. But now it took a corrosive turn.

The first public airing of Shockley's evolving mind set appeared Nov. 22, 1965, in U.S. News & World Report under the headline: "Is Quality of U.S. Population Declining?" Prompted by the editors, Shockley strayed well beyond the confines of established genetics into the shoals of eugenics. He suggested that welfare and relief programs prevented natural selection from killing off "the bottom of the population": "With improvements in technology . . . inferior strains have increased chances for survival and reproduction at the same time that birth control has tended to reduce family size among the superior elements . . . . But the whole subject is being swept under the rug."

Invited to relate this phenomenon to racial characteristics, he continued: "If you look at the median Negro I.Q., it almost always turns out not to be as good as the median white I.Q. . . . . How much of this is genetic in origin? How much is environmental?"

"If he ever had a following, he lost it then," says Roberts. But criticism only seemed to make him more obstinate. A career that deserved an honored position in the pantheon of scientific achievement was forgotten, superseded by the image of Shockley the racist crackpot.

As the '60s wore on, he became more quixotic in defense of his position. He sued the Atlanta Constitution for $1.25 million in libel damages after it published a column comparing his ideas to Nazi doctrine, and was awarded $1. In 1982 he ran on a eugenics platform for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, and finished eighth. Invited to address engineering students at a South African university on the invention of the transistor, he instead used his time to expatiate on his genetic theories, causing an international furor.

In a Playboy interview, he aired his low opinion of his three children, of whom two were college graduates, one from Radcliffe and the other from Stanford. "In terms of my own capacities . . . [they] represent a very significant regression," he said. "My first wife--their mother--had not as high an academic-achievement standing as I had."

His views seemed to have hardened under pressure. In 1965, he had proposed only "an objective, fact-finding . . . national research effort" into genetic disparities among the races; in 1980, he informed the Playboy interviewer that he had come "inescapably to the opinion that the major cause for the American Negroes' intellectual and social deficits is . . . racially genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in environment."

At Stanford faculty functions, Shockley was rendered persona non grata, shunned by old colleagues weary of being buttonholed and hectored at every opportunity. His friends fell away. "When I'd ask our old friends how Shockley was, they'd say, 'Oh, we don't see Bill anymore,' " says Seitz. At the Bohemian Club, the exclusive fraternity of upper-crust Bay Area males, "he made a nuisance of himself about the black-white thing. He would not listen." When he demanded that Seitz, as president of the National Academy of Sciences, endorse his pet research project into racial genetics, their old friendship ended for good. The phenomenon he had launched, however unwittingly, became his most lasting legacy. The defining phenomenon of Silicon Valley, its explosive proliferation of new companies begotten from old, moved into full swing, starting with Sherman Fairchild's decision to buy out the Shockley renegades two years after he hired them. Last, Roberts and a third Shockley defector named Jean Hoerni split off to form an integrated circuits company with backing from the conglomerate Teledyne. Another of the traitorous eight, Eugene Kleiner, would soon make his name as one of the valley's pioneering venture capital investors. Moore and Noyce together founded one of the valley's most enduring successes, the colossus named Intel.

"This was the founding of a new culture in business," says Michael Riordan, co-author of "Crystal Fire," the book about the transistor's invention. "The fact that they could take this entrepreneurial step and succeed made it model behavior in Silicon Valley."

Whether Shockley recognized the scale of his real contribution to society is doubtful. By 1989, when he was dying of prostate cancer, many of those who had joined him in the early exploration of semiconductor science had been rendered multimillionaires by the explosive industry they pioneered. John Bardeen, who had been relegated to the position of a lab note-taker in the famous photograph of the three transistor inventors, had won a second Nobel in 1972, for his contributions to superconductivity theory.

Shockley's world had shrunk. As he lay on his deathbed, attended only by his second wife, Emmy, he forbid her to notify his three children that the end was near. They learned of his death from the newspapers.

"He died completely alone," says Joel Shurkin, the author of an unpublished Shockley biography. "His life was like a Greek tragedy, without the redemption at the end."

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