On this day 106 years ago William B. Shockley was born in London, the only child of the American mining engineer William Hillman Shockley and his wife Mary, a mining surveyor. After graduating from Caltech in 1932, Shockley received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from MIT in 1936 and went to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. By that time, scientists at the Bell Labs had realised that if AT&T (their commercialised telephone service) was to have a future in view of the rising number of clients, they would have to find both an alternative to the unreliable and bulky vacuum tubes for energy transmission, and a replacement for the manually operated switchboards. Semiconductors such as silicon or germanium promised a solution to the first problem, something in the order of reliable electronic switches to the second. Yet, the Second World War interfered.
Shockley, who had until then been experimenting with semiconductors, served as Research Director of the Anti-submarine Warfare Operations Research Group, which focussed on radar research. Eventually, the semiconductors silicon and germanium proved essential to converting radar signals into equivalent signals on screen – an important step forward.
After 1945, Shockley returned to his work on semiconductors at Bell Labs, and within two years he and his team, including the experimental physicist Walter H. Brattain (1902-1987) and theoretical physicist John Bardeen (1908-1991), had developed the point-contact transistor, to be followed, in 1948, by the more effective junction transistor. In 1956, all three would share the Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention, one of the most remarkable breakthroughs in the 20th century as it ushered in the age of micro- and nano-electronics.
The first device to confirm the arrival of portable communication devices was the transistor radio. Product of a joint venture of Texas Instruments and Regency Electronics, Regency-TR1 was the first commercialised version in 1954. As transistors were as yet difficult to produce, it was very expensive then (the equivalent of about 440$ today), yet those who could afford it soon appreciated its worth: music (especially the newest hit: Rock’n Roll) could be enjoyed away from disapproving ears, and news could be listened to on the go – entertainment and information by twisting a dial – always at hand. Portable CD-players, MP3-players, iPods, smartphones and the likes are descendants of this miniature radio. More can be read about it here.
By an ironic twist W. B. Shockley also became the father of Silicon Valley – not so much because in 1956 his Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory was the first establishment of its kind in what would eventually be called Silicon Valley (southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area). It was rather more because of his difficult personality, as the eight top scientists he had gathered to work on silicon semiconductors at his Laboratory left for that reason within a year to found their own high-tech company nearby, Intel Corporation among them. Adequate replacement could not be found and Shockley eventually accepted an academic post at Stanford University.
There is an interesting article about the first biography of William Shockley. New York Times obituary provides further information. A very informative 6-part PBS documentary entitled “Transistorized!” is partly accessible on youtube. You may also like to follow the photo series from the Transistor Museum, or look at a collector’s article on early transistor radios.