Quite a “Shock”: William Shockley’s Imprint on Silicon Valley

William Shockley | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Machines have been a part of our world for many years now. There is a notion that machines must be able to control themselves, when in fact, some of the best machines are controlled and operated by a human. Machines can range from many sizes, from phones and computers to assembly line robots of a factory. Those who use computers know that they use electricity, but what the everyday users do not know is how so much power can be maintained in such a small space. The key is the transistor, a small piece of hardware that amplifies the electrical current that is imputed. This is important because in order to get the same output, electrical current would have to run through many vacuum tubes that take up a large sum of space.1 In 1947, William Shockley managed a solid state physics team at Bell Laboratories that focused mainly on the properties of semiconductors. A semiconductor is a solid or a liquid that can conduct electricity better than an insulator, but not as well as an actual metal. With the addition of impurities and heat, semiconductors can potentially reach the conductivity level of a metal. Before we can see Shockley’s contribution on the world of semiconductors, we must go back to why he began working with semiconductors.

Automation was an important topic of conversation in the early 1940’s. Automation is a broad topic that covers machines or robots and automatic responses. After World War II, the idea for a factory to become fully automated with an assembly line and machines that work themselves was tossed around many times. The automated machines would have to be controlled by something that could continuously enter input and manipulate the system, a computer. The problem was that the computer and machine did not use electricity efficiently due to the unreliability of vacuum tubes. These tubes were either made of glass or steel and used a vacuum to allow the electrons within the tubes to move freely. The tubes amplified the current, but they consumed a large amount of space and were unreliable.2 There was a need for a device that could heighten the electrical current in an efficient amount of space. William Shockley believed that the answer was lying in solid state physics.3

Vacuum Tube Radio Parts | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was at Bell Labs where two members, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, observed the effects of electricity on a piece of germanium.4 Bardeen and Brattain observed that when applied to the germanium crystals, the output was much higher than the input, meaning the electricity was amplified. Amplification occurs when the strength and integrity of the electrical current is heightened.5 This discovery led to the invention of the point-contact transistor. In the 1940’s, many people were listening to the radio any chance they could. Before the transistor was invented, radios used vacuum tubes, which meant that radios were large and not very portable. These radios weighed seven pounds and if they were portable, they needed a battery that weighed seven pounds. But they worked well and people did not mind, until the transistor allowed for radios that were much more portable, ones that could fit in your shirt pocket. For their amazing discovery, the Bell Labs team was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Before transistors, the vacuum tubes were the best device to use to amplify electricity as needed. These tubes relied heavily on high power input such as heat, which made them unreliable because the tubes could break or the amplification would not be high enough. Machines would have to have a low usage of power due to the limitations of vacuum tubes. With a transistor, a low voltage input could be amplified much higher than the best vacuum tube. Since they relied on semiconductors, transistors could operate at higher temperatures, making them the obvious choice over vacuum tubes.

Transistor Radio Ad | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The point-contact transistor relied on holes around the first contact of the current. This allowed an amplification of the base current.6 Shockley was quite a competitive man and searched for a way to stamp his name on the development of the transistor. He turned to the quantum physics of semiconductors, where he increased the understanding of the point contact transistor and the electrical fields that the transistors made; but he needed more than that.

During his studies, Shockley found that by sandwiching crystals and impurities, the amplification could become much stronger and more reliable. With point contact transistors, the amplification is highly dependent on the surface material. Shockley’s new project, however, used two junctions in a single crystal semiconductor.7 This type of transistor became known as the junction transistor and created a new market. After he successfully patented his invention, many companies crafted their own variations of the junction transistor to sell. The junction transistor was extremely commercially successful and allowed for higher computation abilities on machines. His invention underlies the entire consumer electronics industry because transistors are used in a variety of machines and products.8

With the success of his product, in 1956 Shockley left Bell Labs to found his own semiconductor laboratory in San Francisco; he brought the silicon to Silicon Valley. His goal was to produce a silicon transistor, which had not been done due to the efficiency of germanium. However, silicon could offer more than germanium; in theory, silicon could operate at higher temperatures, allowing for increased reliability on the product. Shockley hired a group of young scientist to help him accomplish his goal. Unfortunately, he also had to teach them the extensive knowledge he knew about semiconductors. Shockley’s competitive nature made it hard for the group to be completely efficient. He would keep some important information from the members of his staff that he suspected to be undermining the project. Despite Shockley’s horrible management style, real progress was being made. The members of the group started to disappear as Shockley became too much to deal with, and when a few of the remaining members tried to have him removed, he abandoned the project and a few members left to start their own laboratory to accomplish what Shockley could not. Even though Shockley did not directly invent the silicon transistor, he enabled those who did.9

Modern Transistor | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Those who split from Shockley Semiconductor formed Fairchild Semiconductor, which was much more successful. Within a few years, Fairchild dominated the industry with its planar transistor and integrated circuit. The planar transistor, which was made mostly of silicon, was more efficient than the simple junction transistor. With their success, the employees left Fairchild to create “Fairchildren” – many spin-off companies that also had huge success. These fairchildren formed the backbone of today’s industry sectors of computer hardware and software.10 So, from his complete lack of great interpersonal skills, William Shockley adversely created Silicon Valley.

The transistor is a staple in the computer industry; it has changed the way computers are operated and maintained. With transistors, computers are more efficient and use less space. In the modern computers used today, the hardware relies heavily on the use of transistors. Inside a micro processing chip, the chip that runs and maintains the computer, there can be many miniature transistors. A laptop is designed to be space efficient, while still having the computing power of an average personal computer, this would be impossible without transistors and the power that they bring to the table. One of Intel’s newest releases, the i7 core processor has over 100 million transistors inside of it, and that is just one piece that goes into a collection of parts within a computer.  Without William Shockley and the team at Bell Labs, the computer world would not be the same.

 

  1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Transistor.”
  2. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Vacuum Tubes.”
  3. David C. Brock, “From automation to Silicon Valley: the automation movement of the 1950s, Arnold Beckman, and William Shockley,” History & Technology vol. 28: 378-379.
  4. Gordon Moore, “William Shockley,” Time vol. 153 (1999): 160.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science, 2013, s.v. “Amplification.”
  6. D.N. Bose, “Transistors — From point contact to single electron,” Resonance vol. 2 (1997): 46.
  7.  D.N. Bose, “Transistors — From point contact to single electron,” Resonance vol. 2 (1997): 46.
  8.  Gordon Moore, “William Shockley,” Time vol. 153 (1999): 160.
  9.  Gordon Moore, “William Shockley,” Time vol. 153 (1999): 160.
  10. Cyrus Mody, “Makers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor,” Isis vol. 103 (2012): 210-211.
Quite a “Shock”: William Shockley’s Imprint on Silicon Valley
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