Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age

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When William Shockley invented the transistor, the world was changed forever and he was awarded the Nobel Prize. But today Shockley is often remembered only for his incendiary campaigning about race, intelligence, and genetics. His dubious research led him to donate to the Nobel Prize sperm bank and preach his inflammatory ideas widely, making shocking pronouncements on the uselessness of remedial education and the sterilization of individuals with IQs below 100. Ultimately his crusade destroyed his reputation and saw him vilified on national television, yet he died proclaiming his work on race as his greatest accomplishment. Now, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel N. Shurkin offers the first biography of this contradictory and controversial man. With unique access to the private Shockley archives, Shurkin gives an unflinching account of how such promise ended in such ignominy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Shurkin is a good storyteller, and better still as a researcher of the personal facts." —Nobel laureate Professor Philip Anderson, Times Higher Educational Supplement

"Shurkin deftly tackles this complex figure — and his unraveling — and delivers an unflinching portrait of a tragic life."—Seed Magazine

"At last, the definitive, unstinting biography of this hugely important historical figure—complete with all his contradictions and idiosyncrasies."—Michael Riordan, coauthor of Crystal Fire

"I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions."—Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life"Shurkin does a good job of portraying a difficult man—a vivid portrait."—NewScientist

Praise for Engines of the Mind:

"A popularized, clearly written history of computing...beautifully captures the hectic, creative air at the Moore School as young engineers labored under John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to construct ENIAC..."—The Wall Street Journal

"A fine book, full of interesting angles and lively stuff...Shurkin has the same lively facility for writing clearly about computers that Robert Heilbroner has for writing about economics...Shurkin writes a crisp newspaperly style, has a good eye for color and has created a fine book."—Boston Globe

"Offers a glimpse of science at both its finest and most mundane...clearly and vivaciously written."—ALA Booklist

"The other wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to convey the excitement of scientific inquiry and invention."—New York Sun

"FIVE STARS: this gripping biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre of the great names of electronics. Recommended." —Brian Clegg, author of The God Effect and Light Years

"I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions." —Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life

"Masterfully walks the fine line between presenting Shockley as purely evil and legitimizing his more controversial theories—very readable." —Physics World

"This portrait of a flawed giant reveals a man crushed under the weight of his own pathological insecurities." —David Bodanis, Discover

"Shurkin reveals Shockley to be a fascinating example of an Aristotelian tragic hero—riveting." —Nature

"This informed and candid biography asks, 'Why did a man so brilliant deliberately destroy himself?'" —Skeptical Inquiry

Praise for Terman's Kids:

"While Shurkin views his subject in a sympathetic light, he makes no apologies for Terman's flaws as a scientist and a human being...his Midwestern biases, sexism, his moral humbuggery."—Philadelphia Inquirer

Library Journal
It is ironic that the Nobel Prize winner widely credited with inventing the transistor should be more frequently remembered for his pseudo-scientific, racist views on IQ. William Shockley's innovations at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories spawned the tech-Mecca known today as Silicon Valley. How could this man drift from solid-state physics to the genetics of human intelligence, treating it with equal intensity but far less rigor or, to pose the question Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Shurkin (Engines of the Mind) asks in his preface, "Why would a man as unquestionably brilliant as he knowingly and deliberately destroy himself?" In search of answers, Shurkin combs through a trove of personal documents and family memorabilia, among them the 1943 suicide note Shockley saved after a failed attempt at taking his life. Knowing this particular aspect of Shockley's past might provide some context and explanation for the legendary arrogance and paranoia he displayed in his labs, as well as for his eventually obsessive advocacy of eugenics and some of its most radical protocols (e.g., involuntary sterilization). Shurkin portrays Shockley as a consummately driven man in all of his endeavors, who was, ultimately, driven to self-destruction. Highly recommended. Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., Univ. at Albany Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781403988157
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Publication date: 6/13/2006
  • Series: MacSci Series
  • Pages: 378
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.45 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel N. Shurkin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of many books, including Engines of the Mind and Terman's Kids. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Read an Excerpt

Broken Genius

The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age

By Joel N. Shurkin


Copyright © 2006 Joel Shurkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-55229-6


'I've got dark eyes. I can frighten people.'

William Bradford Shockley was born on 13 February 1910 to an eccentric American couple living in London. May Bradford Shockley and her husband William grew grateful that he was an only child.

May would live all but 14 years of her son's life, seeing him rise to become one of the most famous scientists in the world and, later, one of the most vilified, sharing his triumphs and ignoring his failures – the self-proclaimed 'grandmother of the transistor.' William would miss it all.

* * *

May Shockley grew up in New Mexico and Missouri in the home of her mother and stepfather; a slightly asthmatic girl with a mind of her own. She was capable of packing a rifle and riding out onto the desert or grasslands on horseback to pop rabbits, or, when the mood struck her, to capture them with traps and bash their heads in on rocks. Something of a math protégé with an artistic bent, she found her way to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, mostly because it was coed and free. She went on geology field trips and took up rock climbing, and is believed to be the first person to climb Mount Whitney solo. She picked up enough geology to ride by stagecoach to the roaring mining town of Tonopah, Nevada, to help her stepfather's surveying business, becoming the first female US Deputy Mineral Surveyor.

May was undaunted in one of the last towns of the Old West where women were not plentiful. She was a splendid shot – and totally uninterested in the men around her. She was not especially pretty – slim with an oval face, wide-set dark blue eyes, a sharp triangular nose and wide mouth. Her most striking feature was her dark blonde hair, which reached down almost to the back of her knees. She wore it up and seemed determined that no man would see it down – until she met William Shockley senior, an MIT-trained mining engineer.

Shockley père spoke eight languages and speculated in mines for a living, although he was a better linguist than a businessman. He had traveled around the world in a life of emprise and danger, and when May met him she wrote back to her mother: 'I was amazed to find someone in the middle of Nevada who could talk to me about Italian paintings.' At 52, he was 22 years older than she, with a goatee about to become pure white. He came from one of America's most illustrious families, the direct descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Mayflower fame. His father was one of the last whaling captains to sail from New Bedford, and his maternal grandfather built the ships.

Several of William senior's ancestors had a hand in founding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so he went there, seemingly because he had nothing better to do. A mediocre student in mathematics, he had trouble finding work but wound up with mining companies in California and Nevada. He studied music in New York and languages in Europe, and finally found jobs with mining firms in London in the last days of foreign mineral concessions. He roamed all over Asia, often shooting his way out of jams. There even was a price on his head in one Chinese province. His collection of porcelain would eventually find its way into the Stanford University Museum.

Small wonder that May, in the wastelands of Tonopah, was swept off her feet. William was everything the outside world promised and not like any man she had met before. His age was to his benefit, she felt; his maturity and wisdom were beyond anything in her experience. They married on 20 January 1908 and sailed for London.

How May felt about William is never clear in either of their diaries and letters. She married him eagerly, obviously respected him and may have loved him, although there is no remaining record of her actually having said so, and there are hints that she had an affair toward the end of her husband's life. He clearly adored her. Letters from his trips and expeditions were full of longing and loneliness, and sometimes, when they quarreled, he was clearly upset and remorseful. None of his letters to her contained the words 'I love you.' They appeared happily married.

Every night he would sit down at a typewriter and chronicle the day's events in sometimes painfully intimate detail. Some pages he duplicated and sent as letters home, but most he kept in green or gray books, some pages marked confidential. May read them and sometimes made corrections or additions. His diaries were so intimate and so complete that May and their son were able to imagine whole days lived more than a half century before.

This meticulous notation of his life set a theme in the years that followed. Just as he noted and saved everything he came across – it is possible to reconstruct meals eaten at restaurants on no particular occasion – his wife found it impossible to throw anything away. Their son would later acquire this same obsession.

The Shockleys led a gay life in London, limited only by William's inability to make money. There were several other MIT and Stanford engineers in the city the Shockleys were intimate with, including Herbert Hoover and his wife Lee Henry. Hoover later became president of Stanford, as well as, of course, the United States.

Strapped for cash, the family moved from flat to flat. They were demanding of their landlords and their servants – when they could afford them – and ferocious in defending their privacy, and left behind considerable ill will. Their inability to settle down in one place for more than a few months would be a theme in their lives for years.

May's morning sickness began on 12 June 1909, but neither she nor her husband understood what was happening. If May knew little about these things, she was still ahead of her husband. He had not had that much to do with the pregnancy; a job opened in Siberia and he spent much of the time traveling up and down the Amur river, corresponding in code to save money and protect their privacy from telegraph operators. Mrs Hoover helpfully sent a book listing all the things that can go wrong with a pregnancy, and after reading it May announced she was never going to get pregnant again.

They were now living at 69 Victoria Street near Westminster, a flat they chose after May turned down 40 apartments. It cost £100 for six months, more than they could afford. They hired Sarah E. Richmond to be family nurse. She had been head of all the British army nurses, which would prove to have been good training.

At 2:30 in the morning of the 13th of February, May went into labor. At 9:45 the next morning, William recorded in his diary that he could hear the sound of his son crying, a 'strong penetrating lusty cry.' No doubt. May, who on first sight of the doctor had demanded chloroform, witnessed none of it. Most women probably swear sometime during labor that they will never go through it again, but May meant it. She had been in labor for more than 24 hours and enjoyed none of the experience or the pregnancy that preceded it. William agreed completely. He was so shocked at the gore and pain he vowed that he would never subject his wife to it again. 'For a long time I could take no interest in the baby for my nerves were much shaken with May's agony. It is certainly a damnable business.... I'm glad it's over.'

They named the child William Bradford Shockley.

William Shockley the elder, trained as an engineer, viewed his son's development as if he were watching a construction project. He was fascinated, confounded, and not entirely sure of how children normally develop and what they need and do. For a while, it seemed a grand experiment.

Everything wound up in father Shockley's diaries, sometimes in painful detail. Under his analytical veneer shimmered the light of amazement. Nothing escaped the chronicler's eye. We know that Bill was circumcised on 21 March; that 'Billy discovered that it gave him a pleasant sensation to rub powder puff between his legs after the bath' on the 13th of May; and that Bill's first erection happened in early December that year. We know what the child weighed every day of his infancy. At five months, the boy could call himself 'Billy.' At a year, he could count to four and could tell if one of six objects was missing. He knew A, B, C, I, O, S. His pronunciation was good. 'His intelligence is developing quite rapidly,' William wrote, impressed. May was too: 'Billy is going ahead mentally very fast and is very well. We are very proud of him; he is no world-beater and shows no signs whatever of being anything more than a bright little boy.'

May, meanwhile, suffered from acute post-partum depression, sometimes gaining solace by writing poetry, verses wracked with sadness and lonesomeness. She showed no one the poems. Her son found them in her papers after she died.

* * *

Two important aspects of Bill Shockley's early life become clear through his father's extensive and sometimes excruciatingly frank narratives. First: its instability. Nothing in the diaries indicated discord between May and William or that they ever treated each other with disrespect. They appear to have loved their son, doting even, although they seemed unable to show affection openly to him or each other. The instability came from their financial condition, their lifestyle, and the fact they were strangers in another country and had more trouble adapting than they perhaps realized. And they shared more than a tinge of paranoia.

Their Victoria Street flat was cramped. Bill had a pen in the nursery where he could crawl on a wool mat with coarse embroidered patterns and he could play in the garden, but the flat still was small. Two months after Bill was born, they moved to 5 Abington Court in Kensington and then 2 Camden House Terrace. Meanwhile, their financial situation got worse.

William tried to sell some of his stock in mines and rubber plantations to increase his income, but found no market. The only job offer he had was a vague chance to go to West Africa, which he turned down; he couldn't leave May and the baby. He sent off 491 letters to engineers, mostly in the US and Mexico, looking for investments. 'This will make me a lot of work,' he wrote, 'with one chance of making money in 10,000.' He sent off 270 letters in one day in August 1910. For all that effort, he got 30 letters in response and found a few likely prospects, none of which apparently panned out. He kept trying and once had as many as 1,000 letters in circulation and 'no profit in sight.' He wanted to buy a house in London – they sold for about $20,000 – but it would cost him $8,000 a year to keep it up and he did not have that money. He had property in the San Francisco area, but couldn't sell that at a fair price.

Little Bill also had to cope with a succession of servants. The Shockleys had an elemental social problem with British help and did not trust strangers. The estimable nurse Richmond came and went several times, sometimes because William couldn't pay her. Her absence greatly upset the boy. Once William offered to pay her expenses on one of their tours of Europe in lieu of her salary, which he didn't have, and she accepted. May needed the help. She could not manage without someone to watch Bill as her post-partum depression lingered.

May fought constantly with cooks and housekeepers. William and May fought with landlords. Servants gossiped about the family to neighbors' servants and to property owners, which upset the Shockleys further. Their sense of privacy and security seemed perpetually threatened.

When they had to leave a flat, they crossed the Channel, sometimes with nurse in tow, touring the Continent at least three times a year. Then they returned to London and set up camp in a hotel while May scoured the city for an acceptable flat. Sometimes that took weeks. Once they found one they moved in, and Bill found himself in yet another bedroom with different servants. They ate out constantly; May had no talent for or interest in cooking. Every time they went out, Bill was left with a nurse.

The other striking aspect of Bill's childhood is his violent temper. Almost from the first day, Bill Shockley showed explosions of anger, one that amazed, disturbed and eventually cowed his parents. The outbursts got worse as time went on. Within a month of his birth, his father could write: '[He] gives signs of having a violent temper, and will very likely prove a difficult subject to handle. He is a good baby in keeping still when shown to visitors.'

Bill's temper grew to a constant presence – the bad tantrums that would try even the most even-tempered and experienced parents, which could hardly describe the Shockleys. All children throw tantrums, particularly around the age of four. But Bill's temper was extreme, going well beyond what most would consider the norm.

By eight months, Bill was biting people on the cheek with all of his four teeth, 'but only in play,' his father assures himself. Before he reached a year old, William senior wrote: 'He has a violent enough temper and when he was to eat, howls uninterruptedly at the top of his voice.' Just after Bill's first birthday, William noted more violent temper tantrums: Bill 'screaming at the top of his voice and bending and throwing himself back until it seemed as if he [would] break his neck or hurt his head by hitting something.' His biting became nastier. Bill 'has bitten his mother severely many times and has slapped both his father and mother too often to record,' William wrote on June 24. 'It is an odd day when he does not break something,' William lamented.

Mealtimes were the worst. One afternoon May tied Bill to his chair with a cloth napkin to keep him from hurling himself across the table as he screamed and threw beans on the floor. He could be dangerous to himself and others. Once he fell off his chair in rage, hitting his head on an iron radiator. He developed a habit of twisting his finger in his hair and one night he twisted it so tightly the hair had to be cut to extricate his finger. One day he threw a stone and hit a dachshund between the eyes.

Most of the tantrums were kept for his parents – he was active and charming when others were around – and neither William nor May had any idea how to handle him.

They had three choices: beat him into better manners, use psychological ploys to modify his behavior, or surrender. 'I should probably have beaten him had it not been for May,' William wrote. 'She would not allow it, and I think she is right, for [tho] it is easy enough to spank or shake a child it is most difficult to do it without becoming angry, and there is danger of permanently hurting a child or of losing his affection. Billy always gets angry because he is thwarted or denied something ...'

A week later: 'Billy was spanked today for the first time; he screamed and would not stop, so May spanked him, but he still kept screaming. It surprised him a good deal but it did not worry him after he was spanked. When he went to bed he would not keep still and May went to him, waving her hands and telling him she was a bad mother and not Billy's nice mother at all, and if he would be a good boy his good mother would come back.'

Corporal punishment failed, so without any other obvious peaceful solution, they tried the third alternative: surrender. To avoid incidents and tantrums, the Shockleys decided to mollify Bill in any way they could. The situation was so bad that at least two servants, including Richmond, the former army nurse, quit. They hired a new nurse but Bill was unhappy. 'I believe he noticed the new nurse,' May wrote. 'I thought I had a good one but I cannot endure her and it breaks my heart to see her touch the baby.... If Miss Richmond would only come back.' She would not. The inability of the Shockleys to control their son and their refusal to support her discipline was an impossible situation.

When they lost yet another apartment, they gave up on London and returned to the US, arriving in April 1913 and moving in with May's mother and stepfather in Palo Alto on Waverly Street. The arrangement was uncomfortable; May and her mother, Sallie, could not live together in peace, but as William still wasn't making a living they had little choice.

Bill's temper did not abate with the move. So William tried option two: the psychological method. He enrolled in a parenting course run by a Mrs A. H. Putnam at the University of Chicago, then one of America's premier schools of education, and began a long, detailed correspondence. Mrs Putnam sent several suggestions, apparently off-the-shelf strategies for dealing with difficult children. None worked on Bill, not even her suggestion they throw cold water on him, and William eventually decided the woman was of no help. They reverted to Plan C – surrender.


Excerpted from Broken Genius by Joel N. Shurkin. Copyright © 2006 Joel Shurkin. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface     vii
Moira: May and Billy
'I've got dark eyes. I can frighten people.'     3
The lightness of being     22
Hubris: war and the transistor
'Of a highly explosive character'     45
'I hope you have better luck in the future'     63
'I think we better call Shockley'     86
'There's enough glory in this for everybody'     107
'...To do my climbing by moonlight & unroped'     125
'Well-equipped female with brains'     142
Nemesis: Silicon Valley and obsession
'Really peculiar ideas about how to motivate people'     163
'Three generations of imbeciles are enough'     190
'What law of nature have you discovered?'     212
'Someday we may actually be terribly alone'     226
'The high cost of thinking the unthinkable'     241
'I love you'     257
Bibliography     274
Acknowledgments     285
Index     288
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