Sense of superiority

Marek Kohn reviews Broken Genius: the rise and fall of William Shockley, creator of the electronic age by Joel N Shurkin, in the New Statesman:

William20shockleyWilliam Shockley left two extraordinary legacies to posterity. One is the transistor, which is to the electronic world what cells are to the living one. The other is an archive based on the principle that nothing may be thrown away and everything must be filed. In the course of his investigations – which involved the cracking of two safes – Joel Shurkin found a note to General Foods about a Jello recipe, a wooden splinter that had destroyed one of the boy Shockley’s dimples, and a suicide note. He did not, however, find any redeeming features. We can now be confident that William Shockley really was as detestable as he always appeared.

Shockley snatched opprobrium from the jaws of glory. In 1956 he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for his role in the development of the transistor; in subsequent decades he became notorious for promoting the idea that black people were innately less intelligent than whites. He attempted to capitalise on his scientific success by launching an electronics company, but alienated his senior staff to the extent that they mutinied, dispersing to find fortunes under other banners. Although he thus has a claim to be the founder of Silicon Valley, it’s a legacy that mocks him.

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