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Sprained ankle

"I am overwhelmed by an irresistible temptation to do my climb by moonlight and unroped."

–William Shockley, 1947



Shockley as a young man walking a tight-rope.

Part 1, 2, 3

William Shockley

Hubris and the Transistor

William Bradford Shockley clearly was one of the brightest scientists of the 20th century, yet he lived a life of noisy desperation.

He was a modern hero taken from one of the ancient Greek tragedies, caught in an age he helped invent. Like Orestes and Oedipus, Shockley was driven by the internal demon of hubris. Unlike Orestes and Oedipus, however, he never found redemption. Yet without him, you would probably be doing something less interesting right now.

"One of the century's most important scientists" according to Time Magazine

Shockley was the leader of the team that created the transistor, the seminal invention of the century. There are those who were offended by his abrasive personality and unpopular views who would deny him credit for inventing the transistor. He was the father of Silicon Valley; his company the womb from which virtually all the Valley's dominant companies and technologies would emerge. He was a leading proponent of the science of operations research in America, beginning in World War II, with desk-bound calculations that probably saved tens of thousands of lives. Although he won the highest possible civilian honor for his work, that work has long been forgotten. He and a colleague even helped invent a nuclear device independent of the Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos. His analysis of the effects of aerial bombing may have even contributed to the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

And finally, he unhinged modern science by asking questions that no one wanted asked, much less answered. It destroyed his reputation.

Shockley watched the wealth and power go to others, including the men he drove from his presence with his pride and churlishness. He died in disgrace, and, except for his loyal wife, Emmy, quite alone.

The Mayflower Connection

He came by his weaknesses honestly: from his parents. Shockley came from a long, aristocratic American line, directly descending from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins from the Mayflower on his father's side. His father, William, was an MIT-trained mining engineer and adventurer, quite capable of staring down bandits at gunpoint on Mongolian railroads, but largely incapable of making a living. Shockley's mother, May, of Missouri stock, was one of the first women graduates of Stanford University, majoring in art and mathematics. She became the first woman surveyor in Nevada's silver mining territory. William was 24 years older than she; he was in his mid 50s. 

They married in 1908 and moved to London, where William had contract work. Their only child, William Bradford, was born there Feb. 13, 1910.

Youth being the father of man

Young William was a miserable child: ill-tempered, spoiled, almost uncontrollable, who made his doting parents' lives miserable. They were private, suspicious, vaguely paranoid people, seemingly incapable of living in one place for more than a year. They succeeded in passing this temperament to their son. After failing financially in London, they moved back to Palo Alto, Calif., near Stanford. Shockley spent his childhood there, moving from house to house. They kept him out of public school until he was eight, believing they could educate him better at home. That guaranteed that he would be deprived of useful socialization. Only after William died in 1925 and May moved her son to Hollywood did he have any stability.

Shockley entered the California Institute of Technology in 1928 as a physics major. His practical jokes are still a legend on campus.
Shockley with De Forest

His time at Caltech came during the great intellectual ferment bubbling around quantum physics. Shockley apparently absorbed most of it with astonishing ease. Following his father's footsteps, he entered MIT for his Ph.D. in the fall of 1933, quickly earning a reputation for scientific brilliance.

The summer of his first year, he married Jean Alberta Bailey, an acquaintance of his mother, after she had become pregnant. Their daughter was born that winter. He was an aloof but not-unkind father to her.

Shockley became the protégé of Philip Morse, a great Renaissance man and a pillar of the physics establishment. Through Morse, Shockley got a job at American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s fabled Bell Laboratories, first in New York City, later in New Jersey. It became obvious to all around him that he had a unique talent besides his prodigious intellect: Shockley could look at a problem and solve it faster than anyone at Bell Labs, and he solved problems in ways they never imagined.

NEXT- The Eve of WWII


Bill Shockley in 1974 on how a sprained ankle in college taught him about bureaucracy:
"I had one experience which gave me some slant on the way large organizations run. I was not allowed to take spherical trigonometry because I'd sprained my ankle. Because I'd sprained my ankle I had an incomplete in gym, phys ed. And the rule was that if you had an incomplete in anything, you were not allowed to take an overload. I argued with some clerical person in the administration office, and was stopped there. It's an experience which I've remembered since, and advised people not to be stopped at the first point."


Resources: Bill Shockley interview by Lillian Hoddeson, copyright American Institute of Physics

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