The history of William Shockley and the transistor.


According to the Smithsonian, the earliest, simplest stone tools were used at least 2.6 million years ago, but it wasn’t until 1.76 million years ago that humans learned how to sharpen them into hand axes by hacking flakes off.

Handaxe from India. Source: Jamed di Loreto, Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.

Simply put, this breakthrough took 840,000 years. On the other hand, there are only ninety-three years between the invention of John Deere’s steel plow in 1838 and Ernst Ruska’s electron microscope in 1931. This is quite a steep difference.

Maybe this success can be attributed to the industrial revolution, yet success has continued to rise exponentially rather than plateau.

How have we managed to constantly not only replenish, but improve, our tools at an increasingly faster pace? It hasn’t been just mechanical creations, either: all fields from psychology to agriculture have been drastically refined in the recent past.

Is it because humans are working harder, or smarter? How, if possible, can we pinpoint a “formula for success?” Have we already?

The American Institute of Physics explains that at the start of the twentieth century, American Telephone and Telegraph (now known as AT&T) needed a way to transmit telephone signal across the country without the signal diminishing. Lee De Forest’s vacuum tubes were perfect for this. They amplified signals, and these little “boosts” helped maintain sound quality across long distances. Thus AT&T’s transcontinental telephone line was successful, and vacuum tubes found usage among other household items like televisions and radios. But the tubes were inconsistent and consumed a lot of energy, much of which became heat waste anyways. A niche opened up for new, more efficient signal-amplification technology to fill.

AT&T’s research subsidiary, Bell Labs, was challenged to explore replacing vacuum tubes. William Shockley, leading the project, assembled a squad of scientists. Despite being the leader, Shockley worked mostly in seclusion. In 1945 when the device he made didn’t work, he assigned John Bardeen, theorist, and Walter Brattain, experimentalist, to investigate why.

Without involving Shockley, the two formed a great partnership and by December 1947 had invented the point-contact transistor, a large contraption that looked like a plastic triangle dangling by a spring onto a germanium plate. Vacuum tubes were headed for the jaws of obsolescence! >:)

The first transistor. Source: Computer History Museum.

Shockley was impressed but highly offended that the two created it without him. To spite them, he isolated himself in a hotel for four weeks and drew up a design for the bipolar junction transistor “in a burst of creativity and anger.” Because Shockley was a visionary, not a “tinkerer” like Brattain, it took him years to actually build it.

This junction, or “sandwich transistor,” was easier to manufacture than Brattain and Bardeen’s point-contact transistor, and had some other advantages. Shockley’s creation, finally unveiled by Bell Labs in 1948, was “the central artifact of the electronic age.”

Shockley’s decision to push aside his colleagues was an insult that “broke the team apart, turning a once cooperative environment into one that was highly competitive.” There was a lot of disagreement about who would be credited as the inventor and photographed by the press. In fact, Brattain, Shockley, and Bardeen’s brief reunion in Stockholm, Sweden to jointly receive the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics was one of the last few times the three ever met up.

The iconic photograph of Bardeen (left), Brattain (right), and Shockley (center). Public domain.

Today, a search of Bell Labs turns up a gray-scale photograph featuring Shockley, front and center, uncharacteristically seated before a microscope and flanked by Bardeen and Brattain who look over his shoulders. It seems ordinary, but for those who understand the heavily contentious story behind it, it’s clear why Bardeen and Brattain hated this photo.

Shockley’s abrasive influence did not end there. He wanted to continue working on the transistor, so he left New Jersey and hired a new team of talented scientists to create his own company, Shockley Semiconductor, in California. His personality was such an issue that within one year, eight scientists resigned at once. These “traitorous eight” continued projects of their own by founding another company, Fairchild Semiconductor, and eventually branching away to achieve greatness like founding Intel Corporation or inventing the integrated circuit at Texas Instruments.

If they hadn’t been pushed away by Shockley, would Intel, a company that revolutionizes computer technology, have ever existed? Would Texas Instruments have made the first integrated circuit without the help of Shockley’s ex-employee?

A sign marking the birthplace of Silicon Valley, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. The original building has been demolished. Public domain.

Silicon Valley was literally borne out of Shockley’s failed company.

You probably know Apple was established in Silicon Valley, and that Jobs’s demands for design specifications aggressively pushed the limits of what was technologically possible. As former senior software engineer Greg Christie explains: “He wanted bigger ideas and bigger concepts.” It changed the world, blah blah blah.

Now in the 2010’s, Apple Inc.’s expansion has outlived Jobs himself and continues growing. Would this $233 billion per year company have come to exist as it does today if Silicon Valley wasn’t there to incubate it?

Let’s go back in time for a bit. Where would we be if the mother of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, hadn’t pushed for Ada to be tutored in mathematics in spite of her “romantic spirit” in the 1830’s? Would Ada Byron have never become the first computer programmer? Would another person eventually have done it?

Universities and other research-driven organizations are aggressively searching for the perfect formula to inspire innovation. They decorate walls with motivational posters, buy expensive equipment, and herd young scientists there, hoping that if they throw enough minds at a wall something will be bound to stick.

Universities, above almost everything, emphasize collaboration as the guarantor of success. But as history shows, none of these methods are necessarily successful. Invention is not a cookie-cutter affair. It is an unfortunate, strange mixture of personal and professional interests, social norms, and sometimes disgusting behavior ranging from simple pettiness to violent racism.

(In his last years of life, William Shockley wrote papers on eugenics. He suggested black people were “inferior” and people with an IQ below 100 should be paid to undergo voluntary sterilization. This, obviously, destroyed his already threadbare reputation.)

I (certainly) can’t determine whether we are on the right track to finding a “formula for success,” if we’ve already more or less found one, or if it’s real at all. Maybe we are still just sharpening rocks.

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Say hi to Mars Morales via @mothfuzz