Pluralistic: Kashmir Hill's "Your Face Belongs to Us" (20 Sept 2023)

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The Traitorous Eight and the Battle of Germanium Valley

How California’s ban on non-competes saved the tech industry from eugenics.

A circuit board with the silhouette of a hooded Klansman, his robes covered in circuit traces.
Image; Adam Jones, Ph.D./CC BY-SA (modified)

In 1956, the Nobel prize in physics went to William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for their work on silicon transistors. Shockley, a Bell Labs alum, had already gone to work commercializing this invention, moving from New Jersey to Mountain View, California and founding Shockley Semiconductors, the first “silicon” company in Silicon Valley. In an important sense, Shockley invented Silicon Valley.

He was a terrible person.

After the Nobel, Shockley turned brooding and paranoid. He installed wiretaps to spy on his engineers and family members and administered polygraph tests to employees.

He lost interest in semiconductors and threw himself into eugenics and the extermination of “inferior” people. He offered cash bounties to Black women who underwent sterilizing surgeries. He toured the US, debating biologists to prove that the human race needed to be purified through “race science” to preserve and refine the superior genes of the very best white people.

All of this would have posed a significant barrier to inventing the commercial silicon transistor, of course. But even without the racism and paranoia, Shockley was a genuinely terrible manager. He was prone to starting and then halting projects, switching up the corporate priorities based on his whims without regard to the work that his employees had put into work that he was scrapping or de-emphasizing.

Within a year of the company’s founding, eight of its top engineers had had enough. They quit Shockley Semi and founded their own rival, Fairchild Semiconductor. Less than a year after that, Fairchild launched its first silicon transistor, the 2N696, dooming the germanium transistor to the scrap heap of history. Silicon Valley was finally making silicon.

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Pluralistic: 19 Jun 2021

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Pluralistic: 13 Feb 2021

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Pluralistic: 18 Jan 2021

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Pluralistic: 18 Aug 2020

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