The First Electronic Church of America
William Bradford Shockley, who was born on Feb. 13, 1910, and died August 12, 1989, belongs in our pantheon of saints because, with the invention of the transistor, he made electro-space possible. Before the transistor, computers filled huge, refrigerated rooms -- frosted to keep cool all the thousands of hot vacuum tubes needed to keep them humming along. Before the transistor, Arthur C. ClarkeÕs geosynchronous communication satellite, running on vacuum tubes, was simply an impossible dream. That satellite, filled with millions of vacuum tubes (and dozens engineers to replace them as they burned out) would have been as big as Manhattan Island.
Shockley got his undergraduate degree from CalTech in 1932, and his Ph.D. four years later at MIT. Then he went to work at Bell Labs. A little more than a decade later, he and two colleagues, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, came up with the transistor. It was a piece of gold foil wrapped around a plastic knife, pressed against a block of germanium that had an electrical connection at its base. Their device was primitive, but they had invented a new, immensely more efficient kind of valve to let electricity flow, or not flow, and amplify it. Now a great deal of the worldÕs work could, and would, be done -- at the speed of light.
Now, very large numbers of transistors and their accompanying circuitry can be built on to a small chip cut from a thin wafer of silicon, to form an integrated circuit. In 1986, electronic engineers could put as many as one million transistors on one chip. Today, they have succeeded in upping that number to almost one billion. The amazing thing is that chips are made, mainly, of silicon, the most common element on the earthÕs crust.
Bill Shockley didn't remain at Bell Labs. As he and his colleagues were winning a Nobel Prize for their discovery (they shared the $38,633 prize money), Shockley went west, to set up a semi-conductor lab at Beckman Instruments, and, then, his own Shockley Transistor Co. He began lecturing at Stanford in 1958, and went on to do a great deal of original research in electronics and allied fields. He still holds some 90 patents.
Then, in 1973, Shockley shifted gears. He entered the field of eugenics -- specifically the relationship between race and IQ. Blacks, he pointed out, consistently score 10 to 20 points lower on their IQ tests than whites do. Critics leaped to attack him. First, they said, IQ tests are "culturally loaded." Second, even in "culture-free" tests, the lower black scores are explainable in terms of the black environment. And third, dissemination of these notions give aid and comfort to bigots everywhere.
The problems were not scientific, of course, but political. Shockley went beyond his scientific findings to suggest practical conclusions not directly deducible from his data. He said, for example, that society should sterilize those with low intelligence.
At Stanford, Shockley was burned in effigy, his Lincoln spray-painted, his classes disrupted by demonstrators dressed in bed sheets. For seven years, colleagues from his own National Academy of Sciences tabled his requests for a hearing, then, sidestepping the cow pies of controversy, encouraged him to publish his findings in scientific journals, and make them subject to peer review.
Shockley did go on to publish. No one was able to refute his science. Public opinion? The conventional wisdom came down to this: so what, if blacks score lower on IQ tests? IQ isn't everything. There are other norms -- of intelligence, of creativity, of service, of simple humanity. All human blood runs red. And the electron is color blind.