William Shockley The Nobel Prize in Physics


Shockley was born in London, England, on February 13, 1910. His parents were Americans. Shockley came from a long, aristocratic American line, directly descending from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins from the Mayflower on his father's side. His father, William, was an MIT-trained mining engineer and adventurer, quite capable of staring down bandits at gunpoint on Mongolian railroads, but largely incapable of making a living. Shockley's mother, May Bradford, of Missouri stock, was one of the first women graduates of Stanford University, majoring in art and mathematics. She became the first woman surveyor in Nevada's silver mining territory. William was 24 years older than she; he was in his mid 50s. They married in 1908 and moved to London, where William had contract work. Their only child, William Bradford was born there. Young William was a miserable child: ill-tempered, spoiled, almost uncontrollable, who made his doting parents' lives miserable. They were private, suspicious, vaguely paranoid people, seemingly incapable of living in one place for more than a year. They succeeded in passing this temperament to their son. After failing financially in London, when Shockley was three years old, the family moved back to Palo Alto, California, near Stanford. Shockley spent his childhood there, moving from house to house. They kept him out of public school until he was eight, believing they could educate him better at home. That guaranteed that he would be deprived of useful socialization. His mother taught him mathematics, and both parents encouraged his scientific interests. Professor Perley A. Ross, a Stanford physicist and neighbor in Palo Alto, exerted an especially important influence in stimulating his interest in science. Shockley was a frequent visitor at the Ross home, playing with the professor's two daughters and becoming a substitute son. Only after his farther died in 1925 and May moved her son to Hollywood did he have any stability. When he entered high school, Shockley spent two years at the Palo Alto Military Academy. He then enrolled for a brief time in the Los Angeles Coaching School to study physics. He finished his high school education at Hollywood High, graduating in 1927.

Shockley as a young

man walking a tight-rope Shockley was strongly influenced by the Hollywood culture of the time, fancying himself to be a cross between Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Bulldog Drummond with perhaps a dash of Ronald Coleman. Moreover, he accepted pronouncements of the Hollywood stars on political, social and economic issues. Moreover, he had a loaded pistol in the glove compartment. Shockley's special air and the pistol eventually brought him to grief as he drove through Newark, New Jersey on the very ancient Route 1. He was spotted by the Newark police who took him to be a suspicious character. The pistol clinched the matter. He evidently had a difficult interview with the Newark judge.

He started his college education the same year at the University of California at Los Angeles. After a year at UCLA, he entered the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1928, as a physics major. He had a number of outstanding teachers at CalTech. William V. Houston taught the introductory theoretical physics course. In addition, Richard C. Tolman and Linus Pauling were professors. Shockley earned his bachelor of science degree in physics in 1932.

His time at Caltech came during the great intellectual ferment bubbling around quantum physics. Shockley apparently absorbed most of it with astonishing ease. Following his father's footsteps, he entered MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for his Ph.D. in the fall of 1933 on a teaching fellowship, quickly earning a reputation for scientific brilliance. He obtained his Ph.D. degree in 1936. His thesis title was "Calculation of Electron Wave Functions in Sodium Chloride Crystals." The solid-state physics he learned at MIT proved to be the basis of his contributions to physics and electronics. He added a great deal of side interest to his student years at MIT by using his imagination and sense of fun to keep the staff there on edge with subtle or not too subtle tricks. Many of his friends in industrial laboratories, being free of the academic responsibilities for teaching, committee assignments and the like, managed to find time for hobbies along with their creative work in the laboratory. Shockley was no exception. At one point this involved hand over hand rock climbing, at another far more sophisticated rope climbing including semi-professional assaults on some of the more difficult peaks in the vicinity of Mont Blanc. In addition, he had one highly solitary hobby that displayed a special side of his makeup. He enjoyed establishing confined ant colonies in large glass containers. Part of the art he cultivated was to train the ants to take circuitous routes in seeking food and returning to their storage base. This frequently involved the construction of delicately balanced seesaws of straws which would tilt under the weight of an ant. The ant, near its home base, would climb on the lowered end of such a straw and, in moving past the fulcrum, would cause the straw to tilt so that the ant could reach the food supply. Once the ant left the straw, the latter would return to its original position. This would compel the ant to find an alternate path back. The return path usually involved one or more such challenging seesaws. Shockley could spend hours at the game.

One might ask which, if any, of the most prominent attributes which would characterize Shockley later in life, when he was a famous scientist, were evident at this early stage of his career. It was clear from the start, of course, that he was unusually intelligent. His later fame, and indeed notoriety, rested upon two characteristics. First and foremost was the ability to seek out the core issues in a scientific problem and bring them to the surface in a dramatically clear way with the use of either theoretical or experimental measures - an ability which in some ways matched those of Enrico Fermi although in a different area of physics.

The summer of his first year, he married Jean Alberta Bailey, an acquaintance of his mother, after she had become pregnant. Their daughter, Alison Lanelli, was born that winter. He was an aloof but not-unkind father to her. Shockley became the prot?g? of Philip Morse, a great Renaissance man and a pillar of the physics establishment. Through Morse, Shockley got a job at American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s fabled Bell Laboratories, first in New York City, later in New Jersey. It became obvious to all around him that he had a unique talent besides his prodigious intellect: Shockley could look at a problem and solve it faster than anyone at Bell Labs, and he solved problems in ways they never imagined.

Shockley's first project involved the design of an electron multiplier tube. He quickly became involved in solid-state physics research. In 1939 he proposed a kind of "field effect transistor" that used wires imbedded in CuO2. The device as proposed has never worked, but a field effect device (invented in about 1960 by other people) has become the mainstay of the ultra-large-scale integrated circuit. The proposal that Shockley made in 1939 coincided with the laboratories' goal of replacing the mechanical relays and vacuum tubes in the telephone exchange. Quite by accident, he and a colleague designed a nuclear reactor that had dire potential. In 1939, much of the physics community was taken by the growing advances toward fission made by European scientists. Shockley and his friend, James Fisk, were assigned by the labs to examine the potential for fission as an energy source. The men were given a small room and lab equipment. One day, standing in the shower at home thinking about how to produce a chain reaction, Shockley came up with an idea: "If you put the uranium in chunks, separated lumps or something, the neutrons might be able to slow down...and not get captured and then be able to hit the U-235." In two months, he and Fisk designed one of the world's first nuclear reactors.

Their report went immediately to Washington. The government classified it right away, even keeping it secret from its own scientists. The authorities fought any attempt by Fisk, Shockley or the labs to take out a patent. Only after the war did the Manhattan Project physicists learn of the reactor. Meanwhile they had needed to invent the same concepts themselves. Shockley turned to military projects during World War II. Shockley may have saved thousands of lives without leaving his desk. He was first employed on the electronic design of radar equipment at Bell Labs. He then became research director of the Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group set up by the Navy Department at Columbia University. Shockley and his team solved the depth charge problem and successful attacks on German U-boats increased by a factor of five. Shockley's main weapon was the science of operations research, then largely ignored in the U.S., but already recruited for the war effort by the British. He then went about changing the way the Navy searched for submarines, again improving the kill-ratio. He devised tactics for the Atlantic convoys to evade German bombers after determining statistically and without ever seeing either a convoy or a bomber that the bombers did not carry radar. From 1944 until 1945 he was an expert consultant to the office of the Secretary of War. Shockley eventually wound up in the Army Air Corps, helping train bomber crews in the European theater. He became one of the highest ranking civilian scientists outside Los Alamos, and was the keeper of some of America's most closely held secrets. He traveled all over the world. By the war's end, he had essentially designed the training of all American bomber crews and found ways of increasing their effectiveness even in bad weather. He won the National Medal of Merit.

Despite his frenetic pace and importance, he was an unhappy man, even attempting suicide once by playing Russian roulette with himself. He and Jean had two sons: William and Richard, in addition to the first daughter. To them he was a distant, often psychologically cruel father. Little affection was given, and eventually, little returned. His marriage began to crumble. In 1945, when the war ended, Shockley returned to Bell Labs. Mervin Kelly, president of the labs, had decided to set up a research group to understand semiconductors from a basic physical viewpoint. There seemed to be a real possibility that semiconductors could be used as electronic elements. Russell Ohl had a small laboratory at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, where he "manufactured" point contact detectors for radar purposes during World War II. Ohl had an insatiable curiosity, and, in addition to supplying the radar detectors, he discovered numerous unique properties of the silicon crystals that were available to him at the time. He demonstrated the photoelectric effect at a p-n junction, as well as other properties of crystals in relation to point contact detectors. These properties were not understood, except in an empirical sense. A research group was formed under the supervision of Shockley and Stanley Morgan, a chemist. Shockley's job included the task of recruiting from inside as well as outside the labs. He helped the labs hire the best engineers and physicists he could find. His talent for picking talent was superb.

Shockley with De Forest

(inventor of a vacuum tube) He was able to assemble a very competent group of researchers, including John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, Gerald Pearson, Morgan Sparks, and others. Walter Brattain already was in place at the labs. He and Shockley had tried to build a solid-state amplifier to replace the ubiquitous vacuum tube before the war but failed. Shockley then hired John Bardeen, a brilliant theorist from the University of Minnesota. They would return to the search for the vacuum tube replacement. The application of quantum theory to solid-state physics in the decade of the 1930s had greatly advanced the knowledge of semiconductor properties, but much of the theory lacked confirmation by quantitative experiments. The radar systems used germanium and silicon point contact detectors during World War II. The material quality was greatly advanced in support of this application. Thus, the time was ripe for the task at hand. Although some members approached their work as pure research, from the beginning it was clearly Shockley's goal to discover a solid-state amplifier as a replacement for the vacuum tube. Shockley returned to the idea of the field effect transistor, in which an externally applied electric field should, according to his calculations, modulate the current in a germanium filament, much as the grid in a vacuum tube controls the anode current. The experiments done to achieve this effect were never successful. John Bardeen suggested that electrons were trapped in surface states and thus prevented the electric field from penetrating the crystal. He and Brattain immediately went to work to build on that insight. Curiously, Shockley did not. Although he was administrative leader of the team, he essentially went home to work on his own ideas, leaving Bardeen and Brattain on their own. Big mistake. The two men worked feverishly through the summer and autumn, Shockley dropping by irregularly to see what they were doing, making an occasional suggestion, aiming them in certain directions. The breakthrough came in November and on December 16, 1947, Brattain and Bardeen produced the point-contact transistor. That month came to be called "The Miracle Month" in Bell Labs lore.

Shockley was both proud of their accomplishment and furious that they had succeeded where he had failed. It drove him to furious activity. Bardeen described the transistor action as minority carrier injection, but there was no clear proof that this was correct. In the process of devising an experimental test of the transistor action, Shockley invented the junction transistor. He reported on this device in a paper in the Bell System Technical Journal and gave a comprehensive review of the electronic behavior of semiconductors in a book in 1950. The junction transistor was more difficult to achieve than the point contact, and it was not until 1951 that it was first built. This series of events started the electronic revolution that is arguably the most important development of the twentieth century.

This put Bell Labs in a quandary. The administration knew something important had happened, but Bardeen and Brattain had produced the first transistor on their own. Shockley was head of their team and it seemed unseemly that he not get credit, especially since he had produced an even better device. Hence, the lab ruled that every picture taken of the inventors of the transistor must include William Shockley. He also would be the official spokesman; Bardeen and Brattain were not interested in publicity. Shockley did not protest, but the imposition by management quickly rankled his colleagues, both of whom had already developed a healthy dislike for Shockley. Confusion spread to the press. Occasionally, a writer would give Shockley the sole credit, since he was the most prominent and public of the researchers. Shockley always corrected the record. To Newsweek, he wrote:

"As the senior transistor hunter of our group, I congratulate you on your excellent article. You state that I came upon the principle while investigating the behavior of semiconductors to amplify words instead of electricity. May I add that I came on it only after it was found and displayed by Drs. John Bardeen and Walter Brattain to whom credit for the invention is due?" Bell Labs added to the confusion by insisting, not entirely inaccurately, that the general research program was "initiated and directed" by Shockley. The official line oversimplified the work. No one asked why Shockley's name was not on the original patent. (His name is on the junction transistor patent.) Shockley never tried to take credit from Brattain and Bardeen, but put great effort into making sure he was included. Confusion over credit still persists: The three men won the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics. Shockley's award has always rankled those who learned to hate him. Brattain refused to work for him again. Rather than work with Shockley, Bardeen quit.

In February 1953, Jean was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Shockley took over directing her care and she recovered. While she was recovering, however, he announced that he was leaving her. Shockley also left Bell Labs, taking a job back at Caltech while he explored his options. A year later he met a psychiatric nurse, Emily Lanning. They were married Nov. 23, 1955 in Columbus, Ohio. They began a long love affair that lasted for more than 30 years.

Shockley had always been a fast and unconventional thinker. His solutions to physical and mathematical problems were simultaneously unconventional, quick, and usually correct. He simply spun off new ideas that occupied experimenters for years.

He organized a weekly meeting in the auditorium for the presentation of new results; there were so many that the time was always filled. This was a period of high excitement and intellectual achievement; Shockley was the keystone. His example spurred his fellow workers on. His ability to approach a difficult problem in a remarkably effective manner, to break the problem into its fundamental components, and to find an elegant solution was a strong factor in his approach to the general problem of achieving a more basic understanding of semiconductors. Shockley was adventuresome, professionally and as an individual. He published without waiting for experimental confirmation - and was usually proved correct. He was an enthusiastic amateur mountain climber. The Bell Labs cafeteria had a stone facade; at lunch time he would demonstrate his abilities by scaling the wall, gripping by his fingertips. His enthusiasm for high-speed driving put fear into his passengers. As an amateur magician, he once challenged the protocols of the august American Physical Society, finishing a speech at the annual meeting by "miraculously" producing and flaunting a full bouquet of roses.

Unfortunately, his technical insights were counterbalanced by his lack of insight into human relations. This led to a major division within his own group, and ultimately he took paths that he should have avoided. It also accounts for some of the widely divergent views of Shockley that have been expressed by otherwise intelligent individuals.

Shockley maintained activities outside Bell Labs throughout most of his career. He was a visiting lecturer at Princeton in 1946 and at CalTech in 1954 and 1955. He also continued to serve the government, as scientific adviser for the Joint Research and Development Board from 1947 to 1949. He was deputy director of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group of the Department of Defense in 1954 and 1955. In 1962 he became a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee on Scientific and Technical Manpower.

Shockley Semiconductor Shockley started the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in the Stanford industrial park in 1955 with help from the Beckman Instruments Company. This was the first semiconductor company in what is now Silicon Valley. The intent was to do research, development, and production of silicon switching devices. Shockley was a better scientist than businessman or manager. The Shockley labs were not a financial success. Shockley lacked the business acumen and market sense that was possessed by some of his employees; Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and a group of six other employees left Shockley to form Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957. Clevite Transistor purchased the operation in 1960. Shockley remained as a consultant. The company eventually closed in 1969.

Arrogant, unwilling to listen, tactless and determined he would never repeat the mistakes he made with Brattain and Bardeen, Shockley's innate paranoia finally erupted. In September, 1957, less than a year after Shockley won the Nobel Prize, eight of his best researchers, including Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, quit to form their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. They went on a few years later to create Intel Corp. The men earned incredible fortunes and directed the flow of innovation in the electronic age, essentially achieving Shockley's dream while he could only stand and watch.

His company, bereft of its best talent, floundered. All around him, companies directly descending from Shockley Semiconductor sprang up. Soon parts of the Santa Clara Valley became known as Silicon Valley, and as Shockley glared, more people got richer faster than at any time since Holland in the 17th century. He shared none of the wealth.

In the ultimate irony, today's transistors are based on Shockley's original field effect design. Shockley, however, never manufactured any. He was about to destroy his world. Shockley began teaching at Stanford, and, by all accounts, was a superb teacher. He had studied how to teach creativity, particularly problem-solving, and he put it to use with Stanford undergraduates and engineering graduate students to considerable effect. He even worked in public schools to help teachers teach science. Yet he was bored; physics had begun to pass him by, his company was sold so often it simply disappeared. He began giving speeches on population problems, an issue that had interested him since his wartime trips to India. In May of 1963, he gave a speech at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota suggesting that the people least competent to survive in the world were the ones reproducing the fastest, while the best of the human population was using birth control and having fewer children. He had slipped into eugenics.

In an interview a year later with U.S. News & World Report he fell into the trap of discussing race. He pointed out that African Americans as a group scored 15 points lower on IQ tests, and suggested the cause was hereditary.

Shockley found himself - not unhappily - in a swirl of controversy. Biologists and geneticists blasted his theories, pointing out that eugenics was a rationale used by the Nazis during World War II, and was an idea that had a weak scientific foundation. Shockley was attacked in print, on television, and in scientific journals. The battle was furious, uncivil, and often dishonest. Shockley, a terrible debater, lost his arguments most of the time. Although he had no training in genetics, he studied the field energetically. He was an expert on the use of statistics, and while his opponents, especially in the early years, knew far more about genetics than he did, he could pull apart their statistical arguments easily. Unfortunately for him, even when he scored his points, hardly anyone in the audience noticed.

He was caught in the whirlpool of an ancient debate in science: Are we the product of our genes or are we mostly the product of our environment? Are all men and women truly created equal? Is intelligence genetic? Is race a determining factor? The consensus then and now among scientists without political agendas is that both Shockley and his opponents were at least partially right. We are the product of both our genes and our environment; some aspects of our intelligence are genetic. Race, however, has nothing to do with it. He pursued his argument with his usual thorough scholarship and his almost pathological insensitivity, allowing himself to be painted a racist. The more he was pushed, the more extreme he became, until the debate became about him, not about genetics, undermining his own argument.

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