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William Shockley

William Bradford Shockley was head of the solid-state physics team at Bell Labs that developed the first point-contact transistor, which he quickly followed up with the invention of the more advanced junction transistor. He shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for his work on these projects. When Shockley left Bell Labs to establish his own company, he set up shop near Palo Alto, California. His research there focused upon developing silicon-based semiconductor devices, making him the first to introduce silicon into the area now known as Silicon Valley.

Shockley was born in London in 1910 to American parents. The family returned to the United States a few years later, settling in Palo Alto, California. Shockley attended Palo Alto Military Academy, then Hollywood High School. For college, he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, transferring to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) after a year. In 1932, he received a B.S. in physics. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offered Shockley a graduate fellowship; he received his Ph.D. there in 1936.

Shockley accepted a research position at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey after graduation from MIT. He worked there for nearly 20 years, gradually advancing through the ranks. His work there was interrupted by World War II when, as part of the war effort, Shockley studied anti-submarine warfare and was later a consultant to the Secretary of War.

When that conflict ended, Shockley resumed working at Bell, where significant changes were taking place. Shockley became leader of a new group of researchers studying semiconductors, which they hoped to use in electronic signal amplification and control. Brattain and Bardeen both became members of the group and together succeeded in building the world’s first working transistor in 1947. With success came controversy. As leader of the group, Shockley believed that he deserved credit for the invention and wanted it patented in his name. Brattain and Bardeen disagreed, since the work did not directly involve Shockley, who usually carried out his own research independently from the group. Bell decided that the patent would include only the names of Brattain and Bardeen, but did insist that Shockley appear in the publicity photos about the transistor’s development. This did little to quell feelings of ill will in the group, which eventually dissolved as members went their own ways.

Though he missed out on the construction of the first point-contact transistor, Shockley was not dissuaded from continuing his research. Not long after that invention, Shockley advanced new ideas about the way semiconductors behave and began developing a plan for a better type of transistor. By 1951, the junction transistor was born. Essentially a semiconductor sandwich, it consisted of two layers of one semiconductor material surrounding a second kind of semiconductor. The device was superior to the earlier transistor in almost every way. To speed transistor advances, Bell opened the research field to other companies willing to pay a licensing fee for information on how to construct one. As a result, transistor technology progressed rapidly, spawning a revolution of electronics. Smaller and smaller devices appeared on store shelves, including modern computers, which depend on integrated circuits containing increasingly larger numbers of tiny transistors.

In 1956, the same year his work was recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee, Shockley left Bell Labs (where he had risen to the position of Director of the Transistor Physics Department) to establish Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (SSL), a move made possible by the financial backing of Beckman Instruments Inc. At that time, most semiconductor work focused on germanium. At SSL, however, researchers focused on silicon. Shockley understood that, at least theoretically, it would be a better substance, though it was more difficult to process.

Over time, problems developed among the impressive group of researchers Shockley had assembled at the lab, built near the town where he had spent most of his childhood. Shockley was notoriously difficult to work with; amass exodus from SSL occurred in late 1957. Some of the best-known semiconductor and electronics companies existing today trace their inception to that time, including Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel (founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore).

Following the loss of much of its talent, SSL was repeatedly sold. In 1963 Shockley left the commercial electronics industry altogether to become the first Alexander M. Poniatoff Professor of Engineering Science at Stanford University. At Stanford, Shockley’s interests shifted from physics to theories on human intelligence. His public speculation that differences in gross IQ scores among people of different racial backgrounds reflected a natural difference in intelligence spawned an outcry against him and his work in social sciences.

Shockley died of cancer on August 12, 1989. Despite the controversial work of his later years, Shockley made a tremendous impact on the scientific world. For his role in the inception of the semiconductor industry, he is widely recognized as one as the most influential people of the 20th century.


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