William Shockley (1910–1989)

William Shockley was a physicist who invented the transistor, a device for conducting and regulating an electric current that has been said to be the single most important invention of the 20th century. It opened the way for all the electronic devices to come, including, most importantly, the computer, where transistors baked into a silicon chip connect and control the circuitry. He and his coinventors, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for the transistor.

Their solid-state, compact transistor, which transferred current across a resister, replaced the vacuum tube, a bulkier device that had propelled earlier electronic technology, including the development of radio and television broadcasting, but were less reliable, breakable, and more expensive (vacuum tubes are still used as cathode ray tubes in televisions and in X-ray machines). As the New York Times said in his obituary:

The invention of the transistor became the basis for the electronic age. From it flowed virtually every one of today’s devices installed in airliners and cars, calculators and computers, wristwatches and washing machines.

The three physicists were working in the Solid State Physics Group at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in Whippany, New Jersey, in 1945 following the end of World War II. Their assignment was to come up with an alternative to the fragile vacuum tube. Shockley had already been writing about an alternative a few years before, publishing a number of papers on the subject in a scholarly journal, Physical Review. Within two years, Bardeen and Brattain, working without Shockley, came up with a point-contact transistor for which Bell Lab lawyers were already applying for patents.

Angered by being overlooked for his own role and research on the field effect principle crucial to the project, Shockley secretly began working on a different kind of transistor, the junction transistor, that he thought would be more successful commercially. By 1951, he was applying for his own patent on the junction transistor. It was indeed a better device and became the standard. Shockley stayed on at Bell Labs as group leader, working to improve the junction transistor and writing what became the “Bible” of the semiconductor industry, Electrons and Holes in Semiconductor, a 558-page discussion of the flow of electrons in solid-state transistors and the equations that determine them. It was published in 1950. In 1951, Shockley was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). He was only 41 and would receive many other honors, including the prestigious NAS Comstock Prize for Physics.

William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for Physics with his two fellow scientists in 1956 for inventing the transistor, called the most important invention of the 20th century.

William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for Physics with his two fellow scientists in 1956 for inventing the transistor, called the most important invention of the 20th century. It paved the way for the computer and many other electronic devices. (AP Photo)

Meanwhile, Shockley was cutting Bardeen and Brattain out of the loop on the junction transistor. Although he was careful to acknowledge their work, the press tended to give Shockley all the credit. The two physicists were angered and would no longer work with him or assist in the development of the transistor. Shockley himself would feel slighted when Bell Labs did not promote him, and his abrasive style did not help him. He left the company in 1953 to be a visiting professor at California Institute of Technology where he had completed his undergraduate degree. There, he became friends with Arnold Orville Beckman, the inventor of the pH meter, and with his support established his own company, the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, as part of Beckman Instruments in Mountain View, California.

Shockley began to use silicon to produce the single-crystal ingots or boules that make up transistors. Earlier transistors used germanium, a rare and expensive mineral. Silicon could perform at higher temperatures and was much less costly, but it was difficult to process. Shockley set out to do the research and development to enable the use of silicon, and the silicon chip became the semiconductor industry standard. As the first company to use silicon, the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory is usually given credit for establishing Silicon Valley, the area south of San Francisco Bay where so much innovation in electronics would take place. Major tech companies like Google and Intel in Mountain View, Apple in Cupertino, and Facebook in Menlo Park, among others, have established their headquarters there.

As director of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory division, Shockley tried to hire staff away from Bell Labs but none would take him up on it. He ended up trying to recruit new undergraduates from universities. Eight of his hires left and started a competitor, Fairchild Semiconductor—he called them the “Traitorous Eight”—and two of eight, Gordon E. Moore and Robert Noyce, went on to start Intel. These “Traitorous Eight” went on to start some 65 new electronic enterprises over the next 20 years. Fairchild and Texas Instruments produced the first integrated circuit, surpassing Shockley who was still at work on his own integrated circuit, a four-layer diode, which was never produced.

Shockley sold his firm in 1960 and it became part of ITT. Meanwhile, he and another scientist at the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, Hans Queisser, succeeded in formulating the Shockley–Queisser limit, which calculated the maximal theoretical efficiency of a solar cell, said to be fundamental to solar energy production and one of the most important contributions to the field. In 1968, Shockley was appointed the first Alexander M. Poniatoff Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Stanford University. He had also held a visiting lectureship at Princeton University in 1946 and has received many awards, including the Medal for Merit in 1946, for his work with the War Department; the Morris Leibmann Memorial Prize of the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1952; and the following year, the Oliver E. Buckley Solid State Physics Prize of the American Physical Society.

The Nobel Prize in Physics he received in 1956 was of course the highest of his honors, awarded for the invention of the transistor with his coinventors. Shockley’s own research, according to the Nobelprize.org Web site, had “centered on energy bands in solids; order and disorder in alloys; theory of vacuum tubes; self-diffusion of copper; theories of dislocations and grain boundaries; experiment and theory on ferromagnetic domains; experiments on photoelectrons in silver chloride; various topics in transistor physics and operations research on the statistics of salary and individual productivity in research laboratories.”

During World War II, Shockley served as Research Director of Columbia University’s Anti-submarine Warfare Operations Research Group, working on methods to counter submarine attacks and solving depth charge problems so that attacks on German U-boats were more successful. He also organized B-29 bomber training for pilots and took a three-month tour around the country to assess the results. After the war, he served as Expert Consultant in the office of the Secretary for War, for which he was awarded the Medal for Merit.

In the mid-1960s, Shockley became a controversial figure for his unpopular views about eugenics and the genetic differences between races, calling his philosophy “retrogressive evolution.” In lectures and publications, he maintained that intelligence tests showed blacks to be below average, but because they produced more children, he predicted the decline of civilization and proposed sterilization of those with IQ scores under 100 with financial reward. The consensus view of experts at the time was that cultural and social factors explained the differences in IQ scores, not genetics. Shockley said that he had donated sperm to a “Nobel Prize sperm bank,” to which other prize winners had contributed. Needless to say, though he claimed to regard his work in eugenics as more important than his scientific achievements, Shockley was becoming arrogant and paranoid, and was being strongly criticized for his views by the media and the scientific community. A reporter for the Atlanta Constitution called him a “Hitlerite,” and compared his views on race to those of the Nazis. Shockley filed a libel suit against the newspaper and won, but his reputation was already in ruins. By the time of his death in 1989, he was estranged from his colleagues, friends, and family.

William Bradford Shockley was born on February 13, 1910, in London to American parents, William Shockley Sr., a mining engineer, and May Bradford Shockley, a Stanford University graduate and the first woman U.S. deputy mining surveyor. On his father’s side, he was a direct descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins from the Mayflower. He grew up in Palo Alto, California, his family’s hometown, and received an undergraduate degree in 1932 from California Institute of Technology where he would later teach. He married Jean Bailey in 1933 and they had three children. Shockley completed PhD studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1936 with a dissertation on Electronic Bands in Sodium Chloride. He joined the Bell Labs research group upon graduation and began his career as a physicist.

In off duty moments, Shockley enjoyed rock climbing and pioneered a route across an overhang in the Hudson River Valley, which is still known as “Shockley’s Ceiling.” A practical joker, Shockley was also known for his magic tricks. In 1961, Shockley, his son Dick, and his second wife were involved in an automobile accident with injuries that took him several months to recover. Shockley and his first wife Jean were divorced in 1954, and he married Emmy Lanning, a teacher of psychiatric nursing in 1955, a marriage that lasted until his death from prostate cancer in 1989.

—Mary Cross


Riordan, Michael, and Lillian Hoddeson. Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Saxon, Wolfgang. “William B. Shockley, 79, Creator of Transistor and Theory on Race.” The New York Times, August 14, 1989. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0213.htm .

Shockley, William, Roger Pearson, Arthur R. Jensen. Shockley on Eugenics and Race: The Application of Science to the Solution of Human Problems. Washington, D.C.: Scott Townsend Publishers, 1992.

Shurkin, Joel. Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.