Biography of William Shockley, American Physicist and Inventor

Nobel Prize winning American physicists (L-R) John Bardeen (1908 - 1991), William Shockley (1910 - 1989) and Walter Brattain (1902 - 1987), who invented transistors, conduct an experiment.
Nobel Prize winning American physicists (L-R) John Bardeen (1908 - 1991), William Shockley (1910 - 1989) and Walter Brattain (1902 - 1987), who invented transistors, conduct an experiment.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Shockley Jr. (February 13, 1910–August 12, 1989) was an American physicist, engineer, and inventor who led the research team credited with developing the transistor in 1947. For his achievements, Shockley shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics. As a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University during the late 1960s, he was harshly criticized for advocating the use of selective breeding and sterilization to address what he believed to be the genetically inherited intellectual inferiority of the black race.

Fast Facts: William Shockley

  • Known For: Led the research team that invented the transistor in 1947
  • Born: February 13, 1910 in London, England
  • Parents: William Hillman Shockley and May Shockley
  • Died: August 12, 1989 in Stanford, California
  • Education: California Institute of Technology (BA), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (PhD)
  • Patents: US 2502488 Semiconductor Amplifier; US 2569347 Circuit element utilizing semiconductive material
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Prize in Physics (1956)
  • Spouses: Jean Bailey (divorced 1954), Emmy Lanning
  • Children: Alison, William, and Richard
  • Notable Quote: “A basic truth that the history of the creation of the transistor reveals is that the foundations of transistor electronics were created by making errors and following hunches that failed to give what was expected.”

Early Life and Education

William Bradford Shockley Jr. was born on February 13, 1910 in London, England to American citizen parents and raised in the family’s home in Palo Alto, California. Both his father, William Hillman Shockley, and his mother, May Shockley were mining engineers. Having grown up around gold mining in the American West, May Shockley had graduated from Stanford University and became the first woman to serve as a U.S. Deputy Minerals Mining Surveyor.

In 1932, Shockley earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the California Institute of Technology. After getting his Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1936, he joined the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, where he started experimenting with electronic semiconductors.

Dr. William Shockley at APA Convention
Dr. William Shockley at APA Convention, 1971. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Shockley married Jean Bailey in 1933. The couple had one daughter, Alison, and two sons, William and Richard before divorcing in 1954. In 1955, Shockley married psychiatric nurse Emmy Lanning, who would stay by his side until his death in 1989.

During World War II, Shockley was selected to head the U.S. Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group, working to improve the accuracy of Allied attacks on German U-boats. In July 1945, the U.S. War Department assigned him to conduct an analysis of probable U.S. casualties involved in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Shockley’s report—projecting from 1.7 million to 4 million U.S. deaths—swayed President Harry S Truman to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, essentially ending the war. For his contributions to the war effort, Shockley was awarded the Navy Medal for Merit in October 1946.

During his prime, Shockley was known as an accomplished rock climber who, according to family members, relished the risky activity as a means of sharpening his problem-solving skills. During his early adulthood, he became quite popular, becoming known as a skilled amateur magician and imaginative practical joker.

Path to the Transistor

Just after World War II ended in 1945, Shockley returned to Bell Laboratories where he had been chosen to join physicists Walter Houser Brattain and John Bardeen in directing the company’s new solid-state physics research and development group. Assisted by physicist Gerald Pearson, chemist Robert Gibney, and electronics expert Hilbert Moore, the group worked on replacing the fragile and failure-prone glass vacuum tubes of the 1920s with smaller and more dependable solid-state alternatives. 

Vacuum tube & transistor, functional forebearers of semiconductor chips
Vacuum tube & transistor, functional forebearers of semiconductor chips. The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

On December 23, 1947, after two years of failures, Shockley, Brattain, and Bardeen demonstrated the world’s first successful semiconducting amplifier—the “transistor.” Bell Labs publicly announced the breakthrough at a press conference on June 30, 1948. In what turned out to be a classic understatement, a company spokesman suggested that the transistor “may have far-reaching significance in electronics and electrical communication.” Unlike vacuum tubes, transistors required very little power, generated far less heat, and required no warm up time. Most importantly, as they were refined to become “microchips” connected in integrated circuits, transistors were capable of performing millions of times more work in millions of times less space.

By 1950, Shockley had succeeded in making the transistor less costly to manufacture. Soon, transistors were replacing vacuum tubes in radios, televisions, and many other electronic devices. In 1951, at age 41, Shockley became one of the youngest scientists ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1956, Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research in semiconductors and the invention of the transistor.

Picture dated 1956 of three miniature M-1 transistors seen on the face of a dime
Picture dated 1956 of three miniature M-1 transistors seen on the face of a dime. OFF/AFP / Getty Images

Shockley would later credit what he called “creative-failure methodology” for his team’s invention of the transistor. “A basic truth that the history of the creation of the transistor reveals is that the foundations of transistor electronics were created by making errors and following hunches that failed to give what was expected,” he told reporters.

Shockley Semiconductor and Silicon Valley

Shortly after sharing the Nobel Prize in 1956, Shockley left Bell Labs and moved to Mountain View, California, to pursue his goal of developing the world’s first silicon transistor—the silicon chip. In a one-room Quonset hut at 391 San Antonio Road, he opened the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first high-tech research and development company in what would become known as Silicon Valley.

A sidewalk sculpture in front of the original location of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California. The Shockley four-layer diode is shown
A sidewalk sculpture in front of the original location of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California. The Shockley four-layer diode is shown. Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

While most transistors being produced at the time, including those Shockley’s team had created at Bell Labs, were made of germanium, researchers at Shockley Semiconductor focused on using silicon. Shockley believed that though silicon was harder to process, it would offer better performance than germanium.

Partly because of Shockley’s increasingly abrasive and unpredictable management style, eight of the brilliant engineers he had hired left Shockley Semiconductor at the end of 1957. Known as the “traitorous eight,” they founded Fairchild Semiconductor, which soon became an early leader in the semiconductor industry. Over the next 20 years, Fairchild Semiconductor grew to be the incubator of dozens of high-tech corporations, including Silicon Valley giants Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD).

Unable to compete with Fairchild Semiconductor, Shockley left the electronics industry in 1963 to become a professor of engineering sciences at Stanford University. It would be at Stanford where his focus abruptly turned from physics to controversial theories on human intelligence. He argued that uncontrolled breeding among people with inherently low IQs posed a threat to the future of the entire human race. Over time, his theories became increasingly race-based—and exponentially more controversial.

The Racial Intelligence Gap Controversy

While teaching at Stanford, Shockley began to investigate how genetically inherited intelligence might impact the quality of scientific thinking among different racial groups. Arguing that the tendency of people with lower IQs to reproduce more frequently than those with high IQs threatened the future of the entire population, Shockley’s theories became ever more closely aligned with those of the eugenics movement of the 1910s and 1920s. 

The academic world first became most aware of Shockley’s views in January 1965, when the internationally recognized physicist delivered a lecture titled “Population Control or Eugenics” at the Nobel Foundation’s conference on “Genetics and the Future of Man” at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

In a 1974 interview on the PBS television series "Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.," Shockley argued that allowing persons of lower intelligence to reproduce freely would eventually lead to “genetic deterioration” and “evolution in reverse.” Just as controversially, he pitted science against politics in arguing that the Great Society social welfare programs and racial equality policies of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson were ineffective in closing what he perceived as the racial intelligence gap.

William Shockley Speaking to Newsmen with Notes in Hand
(Original Caption) Princeton, N.J.: William Shockley, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, speaks to newsmen here after Roy Innis, general director of the Congress of Racial Equality dropped out of a scheduled debate. Subject of the debate was to be Shockley's controversial view that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

“My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and, thus, not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in the environment,” Shockley stated.

In the same interview, Shockley suggested a government-sponsored program under which persons with Intelligence Quotients (IQs) below the average of 100 would be paid to take part in what he called a “voluntary sterilization bonus plan.” Under the plan Buckley called “unspeakable” in the post-Hitler era, persons who volunteered to be sterilized would be given a $1,000 incentive bonus for every point below 100 they scored on a standardized IQ test.

Shockley was also the first donor to the Repository for Germinal Choice, a high-tech sperm bank opened in 1980 by millionaire Robert Klark Graham for the purpose of spreading the genes of humanity’s best and brightest. Called the “Nobel Prize sperm bank” by the press, Graham’s repository claimed to contain the sperm of three Nobel winners, though Shockley was the only one to publicly announce his donation. 

In 1981, Shockley sued the Atlanta Constitution for libel after the newspaper published an article comparing his voluntary sterilization plan to the human engineering experiments conducted in Nazi Germany. Though he eventually won the suit, the jury awarded Shockley only one dollar in damages.

Even though expressing his views irreparably damaged his scientific and academic reputation, Shockley would recall his research into the effects of genetics on the human race as having been the most important work of his career.

Later Life and Death

In the wake of the negative reaction to his opinions on genetic racial inferiority, Shockley’s reputation as a scientist was left in shambles and his groundbreaking work in creating the transistor was largely forgotten. Shunning public contact, he secluded himself in his home on the campus of Stanford University. Aside from issuing occasional angry diatribes on his genetics theories, he rarely communicated with anyone but his faithful wife Emmy. He had few friends and had rarely spoken to his son or daughters for over 20 years.

With his wife Emmy by his side, William Shockley died of prostate cancer at age 79 on August 12, 1989 in Stanford, California. He is buried at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California. His children remained unaware of their father’s death until they read about it in the newspaper.

Legacy

While clearly tarnished by his eugenicist views on race, genetics, and intelligence, Shockley’s legacy as one of the fathers of the modern “Information Age” remains intact. On the 50th anniversary of the invention of the transistor, science writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov called the breakthrough “perhaps the most astonishing revolution of all the scientific revolutions that have taken place in human history.”

Vintage illustration of a 1950s portable transistor radio
Vintage illustration of a 1950s portable transistor radio. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

It has been suggested that the transistor had as great an impact on daily life as Thomas Edison’s light bulb or Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone had before it. While the pocket-size transistor radios of the 1950s were amazing at the time, they merely foretold the advances that were to come. Indeed, without the transistor, today’s modern marvels like flat-screen TVs, smartphones, personal computers, spacecraft, and of course the internet, would still be the fancy of science fiction.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “William Shockley.” IEEE Global History Network, https://ethw.org/William_Shockley.
  • Riordan, Michael and Hoddesdon, Lillian. “Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age.” W.W. Norton, 1997. ISBN-13: 978-0393041248.
  • Shurkin, Joel N. “Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age.” Macmillan, New York, 2006. ISBN 1-4039-8815-3.
  • “1947: Invention of the Point-Contact Transistor.” Computer History Museum, https://www.computerhistory.org/siliconengine/invention-of-the-point-contact-transistor/.
  • “1956 Nobel Prize in Physics: The Transistor.” Nokia Bell Labs, https://www.bell-labs.com/about/recognition/1956-transistor/.
  • Kessler, Ronald. “Absent at the Creation; How one scientist made off with the biggest invention since the light bulb.” The Washington Post Magazine. April 06, 1997, https://web.archive.org/web/20150224230527/http://www1.hollins.edu/faculty/richter/327/AbsentCreation.htm.
  • Pearson, Roger. “Shockley on Eugenics and Race.” Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1992. ISBN 1-878465-03-1.
  • Eschner, Kat. “The ‘Nobel Prize Sperm Bank’ Was Racist. It Also Helped Change the Fertility Industry.” Smithsonian Magazine. June 9, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/nobel-prize-sperm-bank-was-racist-it-also-helped-change-fertility-industry-180963569/.