Ironically, Shockley wasn't present at the birth of the transistor -- his name isn't on the original patent -- and his startup never produced a commercial device. But it was Shockley who figured out that solid-state physics held the answer to the reliability problems plaguing the electronics industry, which at the time relied on fragile glass vacuum tubes. This was one of the seminal developments of the century.
At Bell Labs, Shockley put together a team that included the brilliant theorist John Bardeen and Walter H. Brattain, who designed and conducted the experiments. Shockley, busy with his own investigations, merely set the direction for the project and occasionally contributed suggestions.
The breakthrough came in December, 1947, when Brattain was able to coax a sliver of germanium to amplify an electrical signal. (Transistors made from silicon, which is more difficult to purify, followed in 1954.) Shockley, whose own earlier efforts to design a working transistor had failed, was envious of his colleagues' success. Within weeks, he designed a version that was more robust and easier to manufacture. The three would share the 1956 Nobel prize for physics.
Shockley increasingly isolated Bardeen and Brattain from the most advanced research. Refusing to work for Shockley, Brattain demanded a transfer elsewhere in Bell Labs. Bardeen simply left, moving to the University of Illinois in 1951. There, he and two students came up with an explanation for superconductivity, the absence of electrical resistance in extremely cold metals. The work earned a Nobel prize in 1972. He's the only person to have won two Nobels in physics.
Shockley left Bell Labs in 1955, returning to his boyhood home in California to start a company to manufacture silicon transistors. He proved such an abrasive manager that eight of his brightest researchers left in 1957 to form Fairchild Semiconductor (FCS ), the mother company for scores of spin-offs in the area.
In 1963, his company in tatters, Shockley became an engineering professor at Stanford University. Almost immediately, he was embroiled in controversy over his beliefs that blacks were inferior to Caucasians.
His scientific achievements now undercut by his rants on the need for selective breeding, Shockley retreated to his home on the Stanford campus. He died of cancer in 1989 -- two years after Brattain. Bardeen died in 1991. By then, though, their legacy had been established: The transistor ushered in the Information Age. And Shockley, unwittingly, created the phenomenon known as Silicon Valley.
By Larry Armstrong