William B. Shockley, 1910-1989

William B. Shockley, ca. 1956

(Image courtesy of the Nobel Foundation)

Frequently, I have been asked if an experiment I have planned is pure or applied research; to me it is more important to know if the experiment will yield new and probably enduring knowledge about nature. If it is likely to yield such knowledge, it is, in my opinion, good fundamental research; and this is much more important than whether the motivation is purely esthetic satisfaction on the part of the experimenter on the one hand or the improvement of the stability of a high-power transistor on the other. It will take both types to ‘confer the greatest benefit on mankind’ sought for in Nobel’s will.

-William B. Shockley, Nobel Lecture, 1956

As with Jacques Monod and Dominique Georges Pire, February 2010 marks the centenary anniversary for the controversial physicist and engineer William Bradford Shockley, born in London on February 13, 1910.

Shockley’s parents, a surveyor and an engineer, were eccentric United States citizens living a relatively comfortable, if unstable, urban life. The family moved back to the U. S. in 1913, settling in Palo Alto, California when William was still a toddler. Shockley eventually attended and graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in physics, and received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936.

Throughout World War II, Shockley worked for the Navy and Army Air Corps. He became one of the highest ranking civilian scientists during the conflict, and – like Linus Pauling – was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit, the highest possible civilian decoration.

For the bulk of the period following his schooling, Shockley worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories, staying there until 1955.  While at Bell Labs, Shockley’s primary focus was a device  intended to replace the company’s telephone exchange system, one which would mark the evolution from mechanical switches to electronic ones. He had an idea to make a solid state device out of semiconductors, and theorized an effect that described how such a device might function. His first attempt to build one failed, but he later provided consultation to the two men at Bell Labs that did successfully construct the first transistor.

In 1950 he made improvements to the device which made it easier and cheaper to manufacture. Shockley is now popularly credited with the invention of the transistor, and received many awards and recognitions because of it, including a spot in Time magazine’s 100 Persons of the Century. For their accomplishments, the three men involved with the development of the device – Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen – were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.

After leaving Bell Telephone Laboratories, Shockley worked for a year at the Department of Defense as Deputy Director and Research Director of the Weapons System Evaluation Group.  Following this stint with the government, he co-founded his own business, Shockley Semiconductor, which developed and manufactured semiconductors. A conflict arose because of Shockley’s dictatorial management style, and eight of his top researchers left to start their own company, eventually forming the Intel Corporation with several investors. A number of other companies began to work on similar technologies and devices in the region, eventually leading to the area’s familiar label, Silicon Valley.


He’s a racist because he thinks he can make statistical prediction of behavior by population. He’s not a bigot because he apparently does not despise blacks.

-Richard Goldsby, quoted in Broken Genius: A Biography of William B. Shockley, by Joel Shurkin

Image and caption originally published in U.S. News and World Report, November 22, 1965.

After leaving Shockley Semiconductor, Shockley assumed a teaching position as a professor of engineering at Stanford University, where he worked from 1963-1975. It is during this time that he became increasingly interested in population issues, and began lecturing on controversial topics covering intelligence, reproduction levels and, eventually, race stratification.

Shockley used the lower scores of African Americans on certain IQ tests, a largely undisputed incidence at the time, to substantiate his arguments. Among these ideas was his opposition to the view that social inequalities and environmental factors could explain discrepancies in intelligence testing. He instead claimed that the cause for the testing patterns was directly related to heredity and genetics. He began professing views in favor of eugenics, thus immersing himself in a roiling controversy among his peers. Among his most polarizing suggestions was the notion of a program that would grant government subsidies to people with low-level IQ scores, provided that they submitted to voluntary sterilization.

Shockley attended the California Institute of Technology during Linus Pauling’s ascent to status as a full professor of chemistry. Though little is mentioned of any work they did together, Shockley’s name and handwriting can be found in Pauling’s Research Notebook 7 on a number of pages involving experimentation with the mineral pollucite.

The two remained in sporadic contact for most of Shockley’s life, but the majority of the written communication between the two involves requests to Pauling for employee recommendations.  Pauling’s file on Shockley includes extensive documentation of Shockley’s racial views from outside sources, but does not contain any definitive statement by Pauling in reaction to the points that Shockley espoused.  Pauling was no stranger to eugenics controversies of his own, though it can be safely assumed that he did not agree with Shockley’s positions.

William Shockley’s life as a whole is often compared to a Greek tragedy. The difference between him and other famous characters that fell to pride, according to his biographers, is that he never found redemption. Near the end of his life, he was alone except for his loyal wife Emma. His impressive accomplishments and brilliant scientific career were largely discredited within the scientific community because of his vocal eugenic advocacy. His two distant sons and daughter were informed of his death by the news media, because Shockley ordered his wife not to contact them.

Shockley died on August 12, 1989 from prostate cancer. He was cremated shortly after his death and no service was held for him.

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