During his youth, Shockley was strongly influenced to pursue a scientific career by his father, a mining engineer, and by his mother, a mineral surveyor,both of whom encouraged his inclination toward science and mathematics. Shockley, furthermore, grew up in Palo Alto, California, the home of Stanford University, where he became acquainted with many people who were involved in scientific education and research.
After spending his first year of college at the University of California at Los Angeles, Shockley transferred to the California Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in physics. In 1936, Shockley earneda Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went towork at Bell Telephone Laboratories. For several years, Shockley conducted research on vacuum tubes, which were used to control and amplify electrical currents.
Mervin J. Kelly, the research director at Bell Laboratories, realized duringthe 1930s that the drawbacks of vacuum tubes--such as their bulk and their tendency to overheat--were restricting technological advances in telephone switching equipment. In 1939, prompted by the search for a smaller, more efficient replacement for vacuum tubes, Shockley developed a plan for producing a solid-state amplifier. However, the materials available at the time made the project unfeasible, and Shockley's research was interrupted by World War II, during which he directed the U.S. Navy's anti- submarine research.
When Shockley was reunited with his colleagues at Bell Laboratories in 1945,a research team was established to investigate semiconducting materials, themost likely replacements for vacuum tubes. Semiconductors, such as germaniumand silicon, can either conduct or resist an electric current. Although semiconductors had been used to control the direction of electrical currents, theresearchers wanted to control amplification it as well.
In 1947, Shockley and two of his team members, John Bardeen and Walter HouserBrattain, demonstrated the world's first "transfer resistor," or transistor,which used a germanium semiconductor placed between metallic contacts. Withthis device, the team was able to amplify an electric current. For inventingthe transistor, which revolutionized electronic technology, Shockley shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with Bardeen and Brattain. Shockley also invented a more versatile type of transistor that was easier to mass-produce. In Shockley's junction, or bipolar, transistor, tiny amounts of elements such asphosphorous or boron are added to the semiconductor to alter its electrical properties.
Shockley left Bell Laboratories in 1954 to start his own company. At the sametime, he began directing weapons research for the U.S. Defense Department. In 1963, Shockley became a professor of engineering science at Stanford University, where he remained until 1975.
During the early 1970s, Shockley generated much controversy when he expoundedthe theory that intelligence was determined genetically and therefore represented an inherited trait. Citing culturally-biased IQ tests and test scores,he concluded that since the disadvantaged social position of African-Americans was caused more by heredity than by environment, they could never be as intelligent as whites. Although his theories were soon discredited by the scientific community, by 1973 Shockley's views became so controversial he was labeled a racist and was prevented from speaking at several college campuses.