A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

William Shockley
1910 - 1989

William Shockley was born in London to American parents who were in England for several years on business. His father was a mining engineer and his mother a federal deputy surveyor of mineral lands. They returned to California when William was a toddler. His interest in science was encouraged from early on, through his parents' professions and by a neighbor who taught physics at Stanford. He graduated from Cal Tech in 1932 and then received his PhD from MIT in 1936.

He began work immediately at Bell Labs. His research in solid state physics, especially vacuum tubes, made many theoretical advances in the company's goal to use electronic switches for telephone exchanges instead of the mechanical switches used up until then. During World War II, Shockley worked on military projects, particularly refining radar systems. As soon as the war ended, he was back doing solid-state research, now investigating semiconductors.

One of his major contributions to the electronics industry was to apply quantum theory to the development of semiconductors. In 1947, with colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, he made the first successful amplifying semiconductor device. They called it a transistor (from transfer and resistor). Shockley made improvements to it in 1950 which made it easier to manufacture. His original idea eventually led to the development of the silicon chip. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain won the 1956 Nobel Prize for the development of the transistor. It allowed electonic devices to be built smaller and lighter and even cheaper.

He left Bell Labs in 1955 and served as visiting professor and consulant at various universities and corporations. He started his own lab to develop transistors and other devices. The business changed hands a few times and finally folded in 1968. In 1963, Shockley was appointed professor of engineering at Stanford University where he taught until 1975. Teaching made him think a great deal himself about the thought process and how scientific thinking might be improved. His general ideas got more specific with time, becoming very similar to the theories of the eugenics movement of the 1910s and 1920s. He argued that the future of the population was threatened because people with low IQs had more children than those with high IQs. His views became increasingly controversial and race-based. While people continued to respect his achievements in physics and engineering, many public figures and scientists pointed out that "his contributions to physics did not lend scientific credence to his judgments on genetics."

Shockley was married twice, and had two sons and one daughter. Mountain climbing was his chief hobby, which he did not pursue so much for relaxation, family members noted, as for a problem to be solved.

"The half-baked ideas of people are better than the ideas of half-baked people."

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