William Shockley Biography

William Shockley was an American physicist and inventor, known for his groundbreaking work on semiconductors that earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics. With a strong educational background from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shockley dedicated a significant portion of his career at Bell Labs, leading research teams and contributing to notable scientific studies. However, his later involvement in eugenics and controversial theories on black inferiority tarnished his reputation as an academic. Despite his professional achievements, Shockley’s personal life was marked by estrangement, as evidenced by his strained relationship with his children and their absence at his funeral. Despite his flaws, Shockley’s legacy lives on through his scientific contributions, overshadowing his shortcomings as a human being.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: William Bradford Shockley Jr.
  • Died At Age: 79
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Emmy Lanning, Jean Bailey
    • Father: William Hillman Shockley
    • Mother: Mary
  • Born Country: England
  • Physicists
  • American Men
  • Died on: August 12, 1989
  • Place of Death: Stanford, California, United States
  • Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics
  • Cause of Death: Prostate Cancer
  • City: London, England
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory
  • Discoveries/Inventions: Transistor
  • More Facts:
    • Education: Massachusetts Institute Of Technology, California Institute Of Technology
    • Awards: Nobel Prize in Physics (1956), Comstock Prize in Physics (1953), Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize (1953), Wilheln Exner Medal (1963), IEEE Medal of Honor (1980)

Childhood & Early Life

William Bradford Shockley Jr. was born on February 13, 1910, in London, England. His father, William Hillman Shockley, was a mining engineer, and his mother, Mary Bradford, was the first female US Deputy mining surveyor. His parents were American, and he grew up in Palo Alto, California from age 3.

Shockley studied at the California Institute of Technology and received his Bachelors of Science in 1932. He studied for his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Professor J.C. Slater. His thesis was on the energy band structure of Sodium Chloride. He received his doctorate in 1936. The same year, he joined Bell Labs in New Jersey and began research on semiconductors. The research group was headed by Clinton Davisson. He wrote many fundamental papers and had them published in “Physical Review”.


At Bell Labs, Shockley was involved in radar research. This was when World War II broke out. During the war, in May 1942, he served as the director of research for the U.S. Navy’s Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group.

In 1944, he organized a training program for B-29 bomber pilots and took tours around the world to analyze results. The training involved the usage of new radar bomb sights. For this, he was awarded the “Medal for Merit” on October 17, 1946.

He was asked to prepare a report on the casualties from Japan’s invasion in July 1945 by the War Department. His report laid the foundation for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and Japan’s eventual surrender.

In 1945, after the war ended, he was invited to form a solid-state group involving Stanley Morgan, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, Gerald Pearson, Robert Gibney, and Hilbert Moore. They were handed the responsibility of finding a solid-state alternative to glass vacuum tubes. After many failures and attempts, the group was able to submit a paper on their findings in 1946.

Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain invented the point-contact transistor in 1947, which replaced traditional bulky transistors. This work earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics.

He published a 558-page treatise, ‘Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors’, a collection of his research and work in 1950. This would go on to become a reference for other scientists working on the development of semiconductors and their variants.

He invented the junction transistor in 1951 and announced his invention at a press conference on July 4 of that year. The same year, he was elected a member of “National Academy of Sciences” (NAS), a post that was too high for someone as young as 41. He received the “Comstock Prize” in 1953 from the NAS as well as many other honors.

He moved to Mountain View in California in 1956 and set up the “Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory”. After his Nobel victory, he became paranoid and autocratic, forcing 8 colleagues at his lab to resign. These 8 went on to form the “Fairchild Semiconductor” without him.

He was appointed to the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee in 1962. In 1963, he received the Holley Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

During the 1960s, he actively started questioning the intellectual differences between races. Many of his shocking proposals included paid sterilization of individuals with IQ below 100 and stated that a high rate of reproduction among blacks was retrogressive.

He was appointed the first Alexander M. Poniatoff professor of engineering science in 1963 at Stanford University, a promotion from being a lecturer when he joined in 1958. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1975.

Major Works

Shockley’s “point-contact transistor” was a major influence in helping usher an age of micro-miniature electronics. He managed a research team that consisted of himself, John Bardeen, and Walter H. Brattain and used semiconductors to amplify electronic signals. The transistor was further improved, which replaced the bulky and less-efficient vacuum tubes.

Awards & Achievements

His crowning glory was the “Nobel Prize for Physics” in 1956. It was awarded to him for the invention of the “point-contact transistor” in 1947. He was the co-recipient of the award along with his colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain.

He had to his name over 90 US patents, the first of which was the “Electron Discharge Device” on electron multipliers.

His contribution to science earned him many honors and medals. The Institute of Radio Engineers (now, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE) awarded him the Maurice Liebman Memorial Prize in 1980.

Personal Life & Legacy

At the age of 23, he married Jean Alberta Bailey from Iowa in August 1933. In March 1934, they had their first child, Alison. Later, the couple divorced.

He married Emmy Lanning, a psychiatric nurse, later. She outlived him by 18 years and passed away on April 28, 2007.

He was an accomplished climber and made many hikes and climbs in the “Shawangunks” in the Hudson River Valley. A route there is named “Shockley’s Ceiling”. He was an amateur magician, speaker, as well as lecturer.

He passed away on August 12, 1989, due to prostate cancer. He was estranged from his friends and family, and his children came to know about his death through media. His resting place is “Alta Mesa Memorial Park” in Palo Alto, California.


Though his most significant work included semiconductors, he considered genetics his primary field.

He was a sperm donor at the infamous “Repository for Germinal Choice”, popularly known as “The Nobel Prize sperm bank”. He was the only one to publicly acknowledge his contribution to the bank.

He was home-schooled until the age of 8. This was because his parents thought they could provide an education better than any school. Another reason could have been that they often moved from one place to another.

As a child, he was quite ill-tempered and spoiled; traits he inherited from his parents. But he also possessed a funny bone and was a practical joker in college.

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