Silicon chip sprouted at this vegetable marketBy Angela Hey
Story of Shockley Lab echoes throughout today's Silicon Valley
The wholesale vegetable market at 391 San Antonio Road in Mountain View once housed a somewhat headier operation: the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, founded a half-century ago by Professor William Bradford Shockley, a pioneer in electronics.
Monday, Feb. 13, marked the 50th anniversary of the laboratory's official launch by Arnold O. Beckman, founder and CEO of Beckman Instruments. Beckman was an investor in Shockley's venture, having had a successful IPO of his own company.
The goal of Shockley Labs was to "engage promptly and vigorously in activities related to semiconductors," according to the agreement Shockley had with Beckman.
Beckman had chosen the right man for the job. Shortly after setting up his lab, Shockley was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for work he had undertaken 10 years earlier with former Bell Telephone Laboratories co-workers John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain. The prize was for "researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect."
When Shockley came to Mountain View, the town was in a post-war building boom, but still had an agricultural fringe, and Shockley's selected building had been a fruit-packing shed. Inside you can still see holes in the wooden roof where Shockley's flues exited the building.
Shockley's Nobel enabled him to recruit the brightest chemists and physicists of his generation. Unfortunately, he was less skilled as a manager than as a scientist, causing eight of his researchers to resign and help found Fairchild Semiconductor. Shockley called this bunch the "Traitorous Eight," but they were known in other circles as the "Fairchild Eight." (One of them, Jay Last, joins three other former Shockley researchers at the Computer History Museum this Monday).
One of the reasons for them leaving was that Shockley wanted to focus on the four-layer diode, whereas the others wanted to press forward with silicon technology. Let history be the judge: Shockley's strategy was a commercial failure, whereas silicon chips became pervasive and essential for today's electronics products.
History has judged in other ways as well. For example, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce, two other members of the Traitorous Eight, went on to found Intel.
Lab's lessons learned
Shockley's venture provides some lessons for technology entrepreneurs.
First, corporations with strong R&D scientists, like Shockley, need to nurture them and leverage their inventions. Shockley had a vision that silicon technology and transistors would be a massive industry. He knew it would revolutionize telephone switching, but Bell Laboratories was unable to keep him or capitalize on the invention of the transistor. It was Sony who pioneered transistor technology with a license from Bell Labs.
Second, Shockley was able to assemble an outstanding team of physicists and chemists who were passionate about electronics based on his reputation. So don't hesitate to use a great name to build a great team.
Finally, great teams need great managers. Shockley lost his team to Fairchild and elsewhere. Beckman had been urged by some of the lab's employees to replace Shockley as their leader, but he vacillated and left Shockley in place. Sometimes the founder has to step down.
Shockley left a great legacy: the transistor, silicon technology and a web of innovative people in the Valley. Learn more about the history of the transistor at www.transistormuseum.com, where there are oral histories of pioneers.
As I mentioned above, Monday's event at the Computer History Museum, entitled "The Rise of Silicon Valley: From Shockley Labs to Fairchild Semiconductor," features four former Shockley researchers -- Jim Gibbons, Jay Last, Hans Queissner and Harry Sello. This august group will be interviewed by author and historian Michael Riordan, in an event presented jointly by SEMI, a semiconductor industry association. To learn more about the event, visit www.computerhistory.org.
(Disclosure: Angela Hey is married to John Mashey, a trustee of the Computer History Museum, where she is also a volunteer.)
Angela Hey lives on the Peninsula and helps ventures launch innovative technologies. Send comments to amhey