Quite by accident, he and a colleague designed a nuclear reactor that had dire potential. In 1939, much of the physics community was taken by the growing advances toward fission made by European scientists. Shockley and his friend, James Fisk, were assigned by the labs to examine the potential for fission as an energy source. The men were given a small room and lab equipment. One day, standing in the shower at home thinking about how to produce a chain reaction, Shockley came up with an idea: "If you put the uranium in chunks, separated lumps or something, the neutrons might be able to slow down...and not get captured and then be able to hit the U-235." In two months, he and Fisk designed one of the world's first nuclear reactors.
Their report went immediately to
Washington. The government classified it right away, even keeping it
secret from its own scientists. The authorities fought any attempt by
Fisk, Shockley or the labs to take out a patent. Only after the war
did the Manhattan Project physicists learn of the reactor. Meanwhile
they had needed to invent the same concepts themselves.
The Desk Soldier
Shockley may have saved thousands of lives without leaving his desk. When war broke out, Morse was recruited to research munitions problems the Navy was having, mostly with its depth charges. Shockley volunteered to join Morse's office, the Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group. Under Morse's guidance, Shockley and his team solved the depth charge problem and successful attacks on German U-boats increased by a factor of five. Shockley's main weapon was the science of operations research, then largely ignored in the U.S., but already recruited for the war effort by the British. He then went about changing the way the Navy searched for submarines, again improving the kill-ratio. He devised tactics for the Atlantic convoys to evade German bombers after determining statistically and without ever seeing either a convoy or a bomber that the bombers did not carry radar.
Shockley eventually wound up in the Army Air Corps, helping train bomber crews in the European theater. He became one of the highest ranking civilian scientists outside Los Alamos, and was the keeper of some of America's most closely held secrets. He traveled all over the world. By the war's end, he had essentially designed the training of all American bomber crews and found ways of increasing their effectiveness even in bad weather. He won the National Medal of Merit.
Despite his frenetic pace and importance,
he was an unhappy man, even attempting suicide once by playing Russian
roulette with himself. He and Jean had two sons. To them he was a distant,
often psychologically cruel father. Little affection was given, and
eventually, little returned. His marriage began to crumble.
"I think we better call Shockley."
When the war ended, Shockley returned to Bell Labs, and began his rise through management of what was then the best industrial laboratory in the world. He helped the labs hire the best engineers and physicists he could find. His talent for picking talent was superb.
Walter Brattain already was in place at the labs. He and Shockley had tried to build a solid-state amplifier to replace the ubiquitous vacuum tube before the war but failed. Shockley then hired John Bardeen, a brilliant theorist from the University of Minnesota. They would return to the search for the vacuum tube replacement.
Shockley had theorized a device using a field effect, but, for reasons no one could figure out, it didn't work. Bardeen went to work to find out why. On March 19, 1946, Bardeen had his epiphany, a theory that explained the failure. He and Brattain immediately went to work to build on that insight. Curiously, Shockley did not. Although he was administrative leader of the team, he essentially went home to work on his own ideas, leaving Bardeen and Brattain on their own. Big mistake.
The two men worked feverishly through
the summer and autumn, Shockley dropping by irregularly to see what
they were doing, making an occasional suggestion, aiming them in certain
directions. The breakthrough came in November and on December 16, 1947,
Brattain and Bardeen produced the point-contact
transistor. That month came to be called "The Miracle
Month" in Bell Labs lore.
The team breaks up
Shockley was both proud of their accomplishment and furious that they had succeeded where he had failed. A few weeks later, holed up in a hotel room in
This put Bell Labs in a quandary. The administration knew something important had happened, but Bardeen and Brattain had produced the first transistor on their own. Shockley was head of their team and it seemed unseemly that he not get credit, especially since he had produced an even better device. Hence, the lab ruled that every picture taken of the inventors of the transistor must include William Shockley. He also would be the official spokesman; Bardeen and Brattain were not interested in publicity. Shockley did not protest, but the imposition by management quickly rankled his colleagues, both of whom had already developed a healthy dislike for Shockley.
NEXT- Confusion over credit
Copyright 1999, ScienCentral, Inc, and The American Institute of Physics. No portion of this web site may be reproduced without written permission. All Rights Reserved.