Valley's birthplace haunted by Nobel laureate's dark past
Physicist William Shockley may have introduced silicon to the valley, but efforts to save his former lab building in Mountain View have been stifled by Shockley's controversial views on race and intelligence.
Developer Merlone Geier is offering to buy Shockley's former lab building at 391 San Antonio Road — currently housing the International Halal Market — to expand a major redevelopment next door. The owner's unwillingness to sell seems to be all that stands in the way of scraping a site acknowledged as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.
Proposals made by former employees of Shockley to preserve the cinderblock building as a silicon museum or designate it a city or state historic landmark were passed up by officials in the 1980s and 1990s. Jacques Beaudouin, a Mountain View resident who once worked for Shockley at 391 San Antonio Road, said at least one of the mayors he spoke with raised concerns over Shockley's beliefs, and he says others probably also shared the concern but never said so.
"People were scared and afraid," Beaudouin said. It took 13 years for a plaque to be installed on the sidewalk commemorating the site as Silicon Valley's birthplace. He doesn't doubt that his efforts would have been much easier if Shockley's story were a brighter one.
"That's my personal feeling and the personal feeling of a lot of people," Beaudouin said.
Beaudouin said he began working to save 391 San Antonio Road in 1987. When the city was celebrating its 75th anniversary, he saw that officials were making many claims about the city, but not birthplace of Silicon Valley. He says he began speaking to some city officials until he was "blue in the face," about Shockley and his lab at 391 San Antonio Road, but got nowhere.
Finally, during her term as mayor in 1998, the late Rosemary Stasek had a plaque installed in the sidewalk declaring Shockley's lab the birthplace of Silicon Valley, which Beaudouin co-wrote with another former Shockley employee, Hans Queisser.
"Rosemary was the one who really pushed it, made it happen," Beaudouin said.
But nothing was ever done to guarantee preservation of the birthplace of Silicon Valley and Beaudouin stopped his efforts. "I got tired of going over and over the same thing," Beaudouin said.
Beaudouin disputes Palo Alto's claim that the Hewlett Packard garage is the birthplace of Silicon Valley. Beaudouin recalls that Shockley knew Bill Hewlett and once told him, "Bill, you should work on silicon, silicon is where the future is." It took several years for Hewlett-Packard to catch on, Beaudouin said.
Beaudouin says the building now used by Halal International Market at 391 San Antonio Road is the same one used by Shockley's team from 1956-1961 before moving to Page Mill Road in Palo Alto. Only the front facade has been changed.
Shockley shared a Nobel prize in 1956 for the invention of the transistor but reportedly said his work in eugenics in the last three decades of his life was the most important thing he'd done. He wrote a book called "Shockley on Eugenics," about the discredited ideas of genetic and racial superiority espoused by Nazis and some American elite in the early 20th century, but well debunked by Shockley's day.
Shockley once proposed that those with an IQ of less than 100 be paid $1,000 for every point below 100 to not have children, claiming the large proportion of children born to those with a low IQ was causing a reverse evolution. He claimed that intelligence formed along racial lines, and races with higher IQs were more advanced. He denied he was a racist, a term he claimed was an "epithet" meant to hurt his self esteem in a TV interview in 1974.
"The major cause of the American negro's intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin, and thus not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in the environment," he said in the 1974 interview, which can be seen on Youtube.
Perhaps his most controversial quote came in 1982 when he was asked if his views amounted to racism. He reportedly said "If you found a breed of dog that was unreliable and temperamental, why shouldn't you regard it in a less favorable light?"
People reportedly picketed whenever Shockley spoke publicly. In 1989 he died at Stanford, where he taught electrical engineering. No funeral was held.
His views still elicit strong reactions.
"I'm not a Shockley fan, they don't get anymore racist than him," said City Council member Laura Macias.
Macias said she would be willing to commemorate the building's history, but not Shockley himself.
Beaudouin showed drawings of a historical display that was to be installed years ago at the San Antonio shopping center. Large steel wafers stick out of the ground, one of which says "Birthplace of Silicon Valley" and and has a display titled "The William Shockley story."
Beaudouin says the proposal never went anywhere and he was never told why.
In 2009 officials in Auburn, Calif. faced a similar dilemma when Shockley's widow left 28 acres for a park to be named after Shockley, sparking public outcry.
"I cannot fathom how officials in Auburn would have the gall to name an area park after a white supremacist and think that would be readily accepted by residents," Barry Broad, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, told an Auburn newspaper.
Beaudouin says Shockley still deserves recognition.
Controversy over his views "doesn't change the fact he contributed enormously to the development of the transistor and the integrated circuit," Beaudouin said. "Everyone who walks around with a cell phone owes it to William Shockley. I think he was superb scientist, there's no question about it."
Beaudouin said the experience working for Shockley for seven years in the early 1960s "was a good life." Working conditions were not intolerable as described by the group Shockley called the "traitorous eight," who famously left his lab in 1956 to start Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel and other companies that commercialized the silicon transistor and integrated circuit.
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