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Sic Transistor Gloria

The talented egotist Bill Shockley.

Who: Bill Shockley and the "Traitorous 8"

When: November 1, 1956

Where: Dinah's Shack, 4269 El Camino Real, Palo Alto

The future itself seemed to bubble up in the glasses held by eight young men toasting their boss. Bill Shockley, head of start-up Shockley Semiconductor, had just won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for his part in inventing the transistor.

Their enthusiasm was not unabashed. Shockley, 46, could be overbearing and suspicious. He demanded that employees take lie-detector tests and submit to psychological profiling. He cut them down. He brought them up short. That day, however, drinks were on him.

"I never adjourned to start drinking champagne at nine o'clock in the morning on any other occasion in my life!" recalled Gordon Moore. They were gathered at Dinah's Shack, a diner better known--and more fondly remembered--for its fried chicken.

Moore and his colleagues--including Julius Blank, Victor Grinich, Jean Hoerni, Gene Kleiner, Jay Last, Robert Noyce, and Sheldon Roberts--were for the most part Peninsula newcomers, still marveling at winters that brought warm sun, not killing frost.

Bill Shockley was a native son. He had returned home that February from working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, bringing capital and engineers to start an empire amidst the apricot trees. But his arrogance rankled, and dissatisfaction became revolt.

On September 18, 1957, Noyce (then 29), Moore (28), and six others announced their resignation. They were starting Fairchild Semiconductor. Two years later, Noyce invented the first mass-produced integrated microchip. Today, Fairchild employs 11,000 people.

Shockley never quite recovered from the defections of his "traitorous eight." He hung on
to his company for as long as he could, but in the end was outpaced by Fairchild. He became a Stanford engineering professor in 1963, though new thunderclouds soon billowed above his head, seeded by racist comments. Shockley claimed that African-American "social deficits" were "genetic in origin."

He wasn't any more charming at home, calling his own three kids intellectually deficient and blaming their mother. (For the record, Shockley's IQ tested at 129--bright but by no means a genius.) The controversial Nobel laureate died in 1989, at age 79, of prostate cancer. His children learned of his death in the newspapers.

In 1968, Noyce and Moore left Fairchild to midwife another risky start-up. They named this one Intel. Noyce died of a heart attack in 1990, Moore is retired, and Dinah's Shack, juke joint to Nobel Prize winners, is now a Trader Vic's.

Andrew Nelson lives and writes in San Francisco.

Copyright 2001 - 2002 Andrew T. Nelson. All rights reserved.