Mountain View Commemorates Lab of William Shockley, Acclaimed Physicist and Vocal Racist

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William Shockley, in a 1974 interview on William F. Buckley Jr.'s show, 'Firing Line.' (Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr./YouTube)

Last week, nearly 400 people crowded in front of 391 San Antonio Road in Mountain View to commemorate what was once the home of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.

Many regard the lab as the birthplace of Silicon Valley, where the first commercial silicon-based semiconductor device was created. The Computer History Museum put on the Aug. 15 event, unveiling a large statue of a silicon atom and a plaque honoring the lab.

But the person who started the lab, William Shockley, has a much darker legacy.

Shockley was a eugenicist who in his later years advocated for the voluntary sterilization of black Americans. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, some questioned the idea of erecting a monument showcasing Shockley’s achievements. But most who attended this gathering did not want to talk about Shockley’s racist past.

“To me this event is not so much to commemorate William Shockley, but to talk about how Silicon Valley became such an important and unique place,” said Mountain View Mayor Leonard Siegel. He said the event was about the atom, not the man.

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None of the speeches at the event mentioned Shockley’s racism.

An electronic kiosk with information about the history of the semiconductor industry sits next to the statue of the silicon atom. There is a subtab with a biography of Shockley’s life. Nowhere in the information is there a mention of his racism or his advocacy for eugenics.

A casual visitor to the historical marker would know only about Shockley’s contribution to physics, not his racism.

A newly unveiled statue of a silicon atom in Mountain View commemorates the lab of William Shockley.
A newly unveiled statue of a silicon atom in Mountain View commemorates the lab of William Shockley. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Who Was William Shockley?

Shockley was an influential physicist. He won a 1956 Nobel Prize for his work on transistors, and the employees at his lab went on to found Fairchild Semiconductors. Fairchild spawned dozens of other companies, including eventually Intel and venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital. Shockley’s lab closed down, and he became a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford.

In his later years, Shockley made his racism and desire for eugenics increasingly public.

He said different races had different inherent intelligences, and he advocated for voluntary sterilization. Shockley’s racism was wrapped up in pseudoscience. It grew out of an absurd, extreme rationalist ideology where people and their characteristics were thought of as things that could be measured and quantified, reduced to numbers, and processed like bits of code.

Shockley, like many in Silicon Valley then and now, was obsessed with quantification. He put his employees through a series of IQ tests to try to determine their worth. Later in his life, ranking people became about who should be sterilized instead of just who should get a job.

Shockley’s presentation of racism is one that is still common among white supremacists today.

Figures like Jason Kessler have similarly said in interviews that intelligence is tied to race, claiming their positions have a basis in science. Shockley, like Kessler, was invited onto mainstream media programs, where he was allowed to present his racism as a viewpoint worthy of debate.

Here he is on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Show, Firing Line.

'That's Not What We're Here To Celebrate'

After the speeches commemorating the Shockley lab, Chuck Worley walked over to admire the silicon atom sculpture. Like many of the 400 or so people at the commemoration event, Worley worked for years in the semiconductor industry.

Tucked into Worley’s pocket was a worn and folded-up envelope.

Inside was a small, silver disk -- a wafer. It’s a slice of silicon used in the semiconductors that Worley worked on years ago. Worley said he’d taken it as a memento from a sign that used to hang outside Shockley’s lab.

“He was racist and I want to forget about that,” said Worley. "That's not what we're here to celebrate."