Electronics Pioneer William Shockley's Legacy

Inventor William Shockley won a Nobel Prize for his work on transistors, work that launched the modern electronic age. He also became widely known for controversial ideas on eugenics and race. Joel Shurkin, author of Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, discusses his subject.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

It's almost a certainty that if you're listening to this program now you're using tiny electronic devices that can trace their heritage back to the mind of William Shockley. He shared a Nobel Prize with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor and later went on to refine transistor technology, spawning the modern age of semiconductors and of Silicon Valley. But he also managed to alienate many of his coworkers and later went on to be a proponent of ugly ideas about race, intelligence and eugenics.

Joining me now is writer Joel Shurkin. He's author of the book, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan. He joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Good to talk with you, Joel.

Mr. JOEL SHURKIN (Author, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age): Hi, (unintelligible), how are you?

FLATOW: How are you?

Mr. SHURKIN: I'm doing fine.

FLATOW: So - that's great. Tell us who, for people who don't know, you know, the history of William Shockley and the transistor, give us a little thumbnail sketch of his involvement with it.

Mr. SHURKIN: Well, he was a team leader at Bell Labs in the mid-1940s. The AT&T - better known as Ma Bell - was trying to find a technology for telephony that replaced the vacuum tube, and they were going to employ solid-state physics to do it. Shockley was the team leader, and Brattain and Bardeen worked for him. And they did it, not without some fuss, though.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did they do it, his two collaborators, or did Shockley have a whole lot of input into that, also?

Mr. SHURKIN: Well, that's a really good question and somewhat controversial. The answer is yes, they did it. However, there's actually two transistors. There's the junction transistor and a point-contact transistor.

The very first transistor was the point-contact transistor, and that was Bardeen and Brattain. Shockley, in an absolute fury because he had been aced by his own team, went into a hotel room in Chicago and in several furious days produced what became the junction transistor. The transistor that you and I use, the zillions of them surrounding us right now...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: ...descend from Shockley's junction transistor.

FLATOW: But I - you write in your book that his name was not even on the original patent for the transistor, if I read that correct.

Mr. SHURKIN: That's correct. It was not. It was on the second patent, the patent for the junction transistor.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: People are still talking about that now.

FLATOW: Yeah, there is a - and about him, what kind of guy was he?

Mr. SHURKIN: Ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's what your whole book is about.

Mr. SHURKIN: He was a perfectly miserable son of a gun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

How he was miserable is more complicated than even I could get into a hundred thousand word book. There was something wrong with him. What was wrong with him, we don't really know. He was at best paranoid. He was probably obsessive-compulsive. The manuscript of the book has been shown to about six or seven psychotherapist, and I asked them for a diagnosis, and they came back with six or seven different diagnoses.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: But very clearly, some of his wires were not attached properly.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. He was that point-contact transistor type.

Mr. SHURKIN: Indeed.

FLATOW: And he left - he - so he gets a - he gets the Nobel Prize, correct?

Mr. SHURKIN: He shared the Nobel...

FLATOW: Or shared the Nobel Prize...

Mr. SHURKIN: Correct.

FLATOW: ...for the transistor, and he then leaves Bell Labs.

Mr. SHURKIN: Yes, he does. He decided he was going to be the first entrepreneur of the electronic age, and indeed he was. With backing from a man named Arnold Beckman, he founded Shockley Semiconductor in Palo Alto and he was going to build - at least at first he was going to build silicon transistors.

It was his decision that they use silicon as opposed to germanium, otherwise we'd be talking about Germanium Valley out there instead of Silicon Valley.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's right, yeah.

Mr. SHURKIN: He had this enormous talent of picking geniuses, of exceptionably bright people to work for him, and it took him about a year and half to screw it up.

FLATOW: Just a year and half he alienated these people, some names that we would know in the history of...

Mr. SHURKIN: Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce.

FLATOW: The Intel people, right.

Mr. SHURKIN: Yes. Correct.

FLATOW: Who later went on to found Intel. And so he had a whole bunch of people he - that worked for him and he alienated them in 18 months.

Mr. SHURKIN: Actually, he alienated them in less than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHURKIN: It was almost an instantaneous dislike. Shockley was once described as having reverse - oh, missed on a word, but...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, well, what - he...

Mr. SHURKIN: I'll get it.

FLATOW: Was he a bad manager? I mean, that he didn't know how to manage projects, or he just didn't...

Mr. SHURKIN: He may have been...

FLATOW: ...he just rubbed people the wrong way?

Mr. SHURKIN: Yes, on both counts.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. SHURKIN: He may have been the worst manager in the history of electronics. He thought - he had studied through the years, very bright people - how very bright people worked, how you manage very bright people - and then managed to ignore everything he learned.

FLATOW: How?

Mr. SHURKIN: He was paranoid. He was afraid that he hired people who were at least as smart as he was and that they were going to do better things than he could do, as Bardeen and Brattain had done at Bell Labs.

FLATOW: Right. I'm talking with Joel Shurkin, author of the book, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, just out. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

So he hires all - all these people come to join him. They get upset with his management style. They leave, and do they go off and form their own company?

Mr. SHURKIN: They do. They form something called Fairchild Semiconductor, which only lasted for about two years. And then they quit again and went out -because they decided they could get filthy rich on their own - and founded Intel.

FLATOW: Hmm. And so what happens to Shockley in the meantime?

Mr. SHURKIN: Shockley had decided he was going to change technologies. He was going to do something that was called the Shockley diode, which had virtually no market whatsoever. That was one of the fights he had with Noyce. His company, to the best of anyone's knowledge, never earned a penny in profit and disappeared within four or five years; just sank.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And later in life, we know that the notorious history of him. He pretty much abandoned semiconductors, right, and became interested in the brain and race and intelligence and things like that.

Mr. SHURKIN: That's correct. He was a eugenicist. He believed in eugenics, which essentially is that all the people - all the brighter people are reproducing at a slower rate than the not-bright people, or the worthy people are producing less quickly than the unworthy people, which he called dysgenics; in other words, evolution backwards.

The problem with eugenics, which may or may not have any firm basis in reality, is that you almost cannot mention the word eugenics without mentioning the word Nazi in the next sentence because it was the basis for the Nazi's program.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Was there any one thing, Joel, you think that sent him over the edge - that was there an event in his life, perhaps?

Mr. SHURKIN: Yeah, well, that's a matter of considerable debate. One of his best friends said that Shockley and his wife were in an automobile accident in 1960, and Shockley, in fact, hit his head on a windshield. He blames it on that. I think it was far more complicated than that. It may very well have gone back to the telephone call that Bardeen and Brattain had made when they told him that they had come up with a - they had the transistor effect in the laboratory.

I think, in fact, there was not one event. I think he was simply sliding off into whatever mental state he wound up with, but I think it was in there all the time. His mother was pretty weird too.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Matt in Baldwin City, Kansas. Hi, Matt.

MATT (Caller): Hey, hi, Ira. I didn't - that comment about how he had pluses and negatives was not lost on me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: Positive and negative, yeah, anyway.

FLATOW: All right.

MATT: I'm actually a sculptor, and I'm sitting here working on a sculpture of Jack Kilby…

Mr. SHURKIN: Mm-hmm.

MATT: ...who was involved with the microchip. And I was wondering did Shockley, you know, did he ever have any - was there any involvement by Jack Kilby in this work?

Mr. SHURKIN: There was not with Shockley. Shockley was out of it by the time Kilby came up with the microprocessor. Kilby...

MATT: Uh-huh.

Mr. SHURKIN: I'm sorry.

MATT: Yeah, because part of the question is - I mean, the way it's presented to us around here is that Jack Kilby was the inventor of the microchip and - but there was another man named Robert Noyce, I think, who was involved with this.

Mr. SHURKIN: It was a co-invention. They both did it independently in separate places. In fact, again, two separate inventions, and the microchip that we use now was Noyce's work as opposed to Kilby, although Kilby finally won a Nobel Prize, which he roundly deserved.

MATT: Very interesting.

Mr. SHURKIN: So they're co-inventors.

MATT: Okay.

FLATOW: All right, Matt.

MATT: Yeah. All right, well, thanks very much.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

MATT: You, too. Bye.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Bye. 1-800-989-8255. If he were around today, Joel, do you think he would act any differently or you know...

Mr. SHURKIN: Oh, no. He - this was in his soul. I read it as if it was Greek tragedy without redemption at the end. He was simply destined to fail almost from the very beginning.

You have to keep in mind that he was seriously one of the brightest people who ever walked the planet during the 20th century. He was extraordinarily smart. He had been raised in a family in which he had virtually no contact with children as he was growing up and had no contact with adults outside of this very restricted field that he was in. I mean, he hung around physicists and almost nobody else. I think he was simply doomed to fail.

It's hard to imagine anybody failing quite as spectacularly as he did. We mentioned that he started Silicon Valley. He didn't make a dime out of Silicon Valley. Noyce and Gordon Moore and people like Jobs and Gates made a fortune out of the stuff that he started. And to the best of my knowledge he made no money out of it whatsoever.

He lived - they lived his dream.

FLATOW: That's the tragedy.

Mr. SHURKIN: That's the tragedy.

FLATOW: If he had stayed at Bell Labs, do you think things might have changed differently, or was it in his constitution not to be able to stay?

Mr. SHURKIN: It was in his constitution not to be able to stay. He was sure that he would succeed. He was sure that he would hire all the right people to help him succeed, which was true, and that he knew how to manage those people, which was not true. The word I was looking for before was reverse charisma.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: He would walk into a room and you would instantly dislike him.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. In your research, did you get the impression that he - you seemed to imply it before but I want to ask it more directly - that he was truly mentally ill?

Mr. SHURKIN: Well, yes, I just don't know.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: Again, I showed this manuscript to six or seven people and came up with six or seven different answers. Obviously, he was not normal.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: Part of that has to do with his genius, I am sure. Part of it has to do with his inabilities to deal with other humans. He was one of the most insensitive louts you could ever possibly imagine. But whether he learned that or whether he was born with that, I have absolutely no clue.

FLATOW: Let's go to Cathy(ph) in St. Augustine, Florida. Hi, Cathy.

CATHY (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

FLATOW: Fine. How are you?

CATHY: I was telling your staff I was a very junior little staffer at Stanford Electronic Labs in 1970. And he was there. And I'm just - I was - you know, it makes sense hearing your guest talk about his behavior.

I didn't have that insight at the time. And he was a terrifying figure. And I guess that's helped most (unintelligible) sympathy for his wife, who was much long suffering little step-and-fetch-it kind of (unintelligible) always following behind making nice for the messes that he would create.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks for that personal input.

CATHY: Okay.

Mr. SHURKIN: His wife was the reason why this book got written, actually. She wanted it done very, very badly. She turned over all of the family archives to me. And I actually moved into her house.

FLATOW: Wow. Because she wanted to do what?

Mr. SHURKIN: She was his last defender. She was his lover. She was his friend. She was his colleague. She was his soldier, his secretary, and his doormat, for all practical purposes.

She wanted desperately to have a book written - a biography written of him. I could not possibly have done this without her. I owe her a great deal. And she did literally let me move into the house; I moved into his office.

FLATOW: But you did - but the book you came up with I'm sure is not the kind of book she thought was going to happen.

Mr. SHURKIN: I'm waiting for the telephone call.

FLATOW: I mean, because if she gave you these documents and she was his biggest defender, it's almost - to me it says, I want you - if you knew the Shockley I knew, you would love him as much as I did.

Mr. SHURKIN: Correct. Well, I know him at least as well as she does and I didn't love him very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHURKIN: I did admire him, however.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHURKIN: What she thinks of the book, I don't know. Again, I'm waiting for the telephone call because I certainly did send her a copy of it.

FLATOW: Talking with Joel Shurkin, author of, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, published by Palgrave Macmillan on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Lots of folks want to talk about Shockley. Let's go to Deborah(ph) in Summerville, South Carolina. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine.

DEBORAH: I would like to know about William Shockley's three children from his first marriage. How are they and what are they doing and are they as bright as their father?

FLATOW: Did you know the Shockleys?

DEBORAH: Yes. I lived down the street from them. And my father actually worked in Whippany with Shockley. And then my dad went over to Bell Labs in Murray Hill.

Mr. SHURKIN: The answer to your question is the children - he has a daughter...

DEBORAH: Yes.

Mr. SHURKIN: ...and two sons.

DEBORAH: Right.

Mr. SHURKIN: The daughter is Allison, who was also very helpful with the book. She is married and lived here in Silver Springs but she's since moved to Virginia, not quite sure where. Two sons, one of them was a physicist with a degree from Stanford, and the other one is in Los Angeles and I don't remember what he did.

There's a different - they had a different relationship. Allison was much older than her older brother. And she had a different relationship with him than her brothers did. The brothers are not terribly fond of their father.

DEBORAH: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Mr. SHURKIN: They even dislike their mother more for reasons that I actually never figured out. But they did not - they're not like the old man at all and had a whole different relationship with them. It's entirely possible that he was sliding into whatever mental state he was sliding into at the time and they were the victims of it.

DEBORAH: Right.

FLATOW: All right, Deborah. Thanks for calling.

DEBORAH: You're welcome. Bye bye.

FLATOW: Bye bye. You know, if you can make a movie called, The Beautiful Mind, I think this is another movie, Joel. I mean...

Mr. SHURKIN: I agree except that there is no redemption at the end. He died alone, in pain of prostrate cancer. Emmy, his wife, was at his side. And she had a memorial service - a one-person memorial service. She showed up. His body was cremated.

And one of the reasons I think was if they held a real service, nobody would come. So it's very hard to have a movie without any redemption at the end of it.

In fact, we have - I think we have sold an option for it, so someone's going to try and do it.

FLATOW: Huh. I mean, that's just terrible to say things, you know, about somebody like that - that there's absolutely no - I'm not criticizing you. I'm just saying what an awful life that you've uncovered that there's no redemption.

Mr. SHURKIN: He would...

FLATOW: Maybe even the transistor is not his redemption, pardon (unintelligible).

Mr. SHURKIN: No, because this - this interested me. He became so detested because of his eugenics theories and his obsession with eugenics theories. He could talk about nothing else. You could not have a conversation about the weather, baseball, or anything else. That's all he wanted to talk about, even to his children.

By the way, one of his sons didn't see him for the last 20 years of his life. By the time he was done, he had alienated all of his friends. The problem that I had as a biographer was that he was so detested that people's memory were altered.

I was told repeatedly that nudge, nudge, wink, wink, he did not really invent the junction transistor. Well, he did. It got to the point where I started distrusting what people were telling me and how to rely on the written documents, which, as a journalist, I've never had to do before.

People were telling me things that I knew were not true but that they fervently believed to be true. And it wasn't his - that's how detested he was.

FLATOW: Wow. So did you find yourself changing your opinions as you went through the research and the writing?

Mr. SHURKIN: Yes, because, again, it was his brilliance. There are several stories about him that nobody knows or didn't know until I wrote the book, which is saying he was something of a war hero. He invented operations research, and he may have saved thousands upon thousands of lives without ever leaving his desk, such things as how to hunt down the German submarines or how to avoid German anti-submarine - how to avoid German planes when you're on a convoy across the Atlantic.

He did many of those things. And then he was responsible to a large extent for the team inventing the transistor. It's what happened afterwards that was a surprise. And again, it was right out of Sophocles.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Joel, I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us.

Mr. SHURKIN: My pleasure.

FLATOW: And an old friend of mine. Good luck, good luck to you. Joel Shurkin, author of the book, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

We'll watch for the movie, Joel. Thanks, sir, for talking with us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we're going to switch gears again and talk about the 30th anniversary of the Martian lander, the Viking, landing on Mars 30 years ago this week. It was an exciting time back then. We'll talk about maybe exciting days to come with other missions.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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