William Bradford Shockley Biography

William Bradford Shockley Jr. was an American physicist and inventor - he managed the research group that invented the point contact transistor.

William Bradford Shockley Jr was one of the trio of famous scientists that invented the first transistor. He managed the team including John Bardeen and Walter Brattain that invented the point contact transistor.

The invention of the transistor by Shockley and his team transformed the world of electronics that had previously depended on thermionic vacuum tube technology for active devices. The invention of the transistor by William Shockley and his team paved the way for future semiconductor devices and the semiconductor based word we know today.

Shockley's later attempts to commercial the transistor and silicon technology can be attributed to being a major force in the founding of Silicon Valley in California, USA.

William Shockley early years

William Shockley was born in London, England, on 13th February, 1910. He was the son of an American mining engineer from Massachusetts named William Hillman Shockley, and his wife, Mary, n´e Bradford who herself had also been engaged in mining as a deputy mineral surveyor in Nevada.

In 1913, William Shockley senior returned with his family to Palo Alto California, USA where he spent his childhood and formative years.

Shockley attended Caltech where he gained his bachelor's degree and later attained his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT in 1936.

From MIT, Shockley joined a research group at Bell Labs in New Jersey where he worked n device electronics. He published a number of papers on solid state physics and in 1938 he received his first patent for an Electron Discharge Device photomultiplier.

Shockley marries

Shockley married twice. He married his first wife Jean, n´e Bailey, while still at Caltech. in August 1933. He had three children by his first marriage it ended in divorce. His second wife was Emmy Lanning who survived him at his death.

Shockley in WWII

When World War II broke out Shockley moved to undertake radar research, but at the Bell Labs facility in Manhatten, New York. Then in 1942 he took leave from Bell Labs to undertake specific war development at Columbia University's Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group where he became research director. With the submarine threat a major issue to the war effort, this research was of paramount importance. As a result of this work he met many high tanking officials and soon became involved in a variety of projects addressing different elements of the war effort. As a result of his contributions, Shockley was awarded the Medal for Merit in October 1946.

Shockley starts his transistor work

Shortly after the end of the war, Shockley returned to Bell Labs, joining their new solid state physics group which he led with a chemist named Stanley Morgan. The group included a number of people including John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, as well as Gerald Pearson, Robert Gibney, Hilbert Moore and several technicians.

The aim of the group was to investigate if solid state amplifiers could be made using semiconductor technology.

Initially the group looked into using field effects to control the current in a semiconductor channel, effectively making what we know today as a field effect transistor. However the group ran into two main issues. The first was that they were unable to get the idea to work despite trying a host of materials and techniques. The second was that the attorneys at Bell Labs discovered that Julius Lilienfield had anticipated this idea in 1930 and there was a patent on Canada.

The pace of work started to pick up when they investigated the way in which point contacts on a semiconductor affected its operation. They soon found evidence of some amplification.

Three of the team, namely Bardeen, Brattain and Gibney submitted a patent for devices using point contact wires and an electrolyte on the surface of the transistor. Shockley was angered that his name was not on the patent and secretly worked on his own developing a junction transistor.

Shockley believed that the point contact transistor would be unreliable and difficult to manufacture. One made of PN junctions would be far more robust.

Nevertheless the team persevered with the point contact transistor and Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain demonstrated it to senior management on 16 December 1947.

Meanwhile Shockley continued to work on his version of the transistor which he termed his 'sandwich transistor.'

One of Shockley's major works was a treatise called Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors that was published in 1950. This included his diode equation and formed the basis of much semiconductor work for many years to come.

Following on from this treatise, Shockley continued to work on his version of the transistor - the junction transistor which was announced at a press conference on 4th July 1950.

Shockley Semiconductors

William Shockley moved from Bell Labs in New Jersey to set up his own company, Shockley Semiconductor laboratory in 1956. This company was a division of Beckman Instruments and was the first company to be formed in what is now called Silicon Valley.

Sadly, Shockley increasingly adopted an autocratic and domineering management style. As a result of several incidents that occurred a number of his employees left and set up Fairchild Semiconductors. Other semiconductor companies soon followed, building on the level of expertise in the area.

Later years

Shockley was ultimately removed from Shockley Semiconductors and took up a position at Stanford University, where in 1963 he was appointed the Alexander M. Poniatoff Professor of Engineering and Applied Science.

In 1956 Shockley was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics along with Bardeen and Brattain for his work into the development of the transistor.

Shockley also started to research into genetics becoming very interesting in the application to race, human intelligence, and eugenics. His views were very controversial as he suggested sterilizing those of lower IQ. As a result his reputation was severely damaged.


As a result of his demeanor and his views, Shockley became increasingly isolated in his last years. He died in 1989 of prostate cancer in Palo Alto California at the age of 79. Despite his major contributions to the semiconductor industry, he believed that his major work was that associated with genetics.

William Shockley facts

A summary of some of the chief facts about William Shockley:

Key William Schockley Facts
Fact Details
Birth date 13 February 1910
Place of birth London England (to American parents)
Education Massachusetts Institute of Technology & California Institute of Technology
Honours and awards Nobel Prize in Physics, IEEE Medal of Honor, Comstock Prize in Physics
Inventions Point contact transistor (1947), Junction transistor (1948)
Died 12 August 1989
Place of death Palo Alto, California, USA

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