Oct 12, 2016
It's 1939 and war has broken out in Europe for the 2nd time in just over 20 years. A young man born in London, now living in the US, accepts a new job to try and help the Allies fighting in Europe. This horrible, bloody war has ushered in a range of sophisticated technology on both sides. In particular it's introduced the widespread use of aircraft as a means of attack. Bombing raids are standard strategy; cripple the opposition by destroying their manufacturing capacity. It's the modern interpretation of Medieval siege tactics. Cut off supply, weaken them, starve them into submission or an into inability to defend themselves. Only this time the collateral damage is much higher.
The young man is William. William's team in Manhattan was working on a way to win the war. It wasn't the now well known "Manhattan Project", though this was an ultimately even more expensive endeavor, it was a way to see beyond the horizon. Through the clouds. To see the new airborne threat long before it arrived, and give the Allies a chance to both defend themselves from the oncoming attack and mitigate any losses. In six short years they turned what was little more than theory into one of the most significant technological advances the world had seen, and changed the outcome of the war in the process.
After the war William focussed his efforts on a new problem: a commercially viable alternative to vacuum tube amplifiers. They were the switches that enabled the first computers. Looking something like a cousin of an incandescent light bulb and being housed within a thin glass shell meant they were particularly fragile. Which was a problem when a computer required more than 17,000 of them. The advancement of this new computing technology would necessitate a more durable, or alternative, solution. Over the next 10 years William and his colleagues (there doesn't seem to be enough camaraderie to call them teammates) would invent, and continue to refine, the transistor. However in 1956 William would leave his job on the East Coast and move west to be with his ageing mother. A much more temperate and comfortable place to spend your final years than the often harsh extremes of New York and Jersey. Setting up his own company in a nearby suburb. His attempts to attract former colleagues to join him failed, so instead he assembled an enthusiastic young team of local scientists and engineers, focussed on expanding on and commercialising his previous research by using new more efficient materials.
Everyone has had a bad manager. William was one of the worst.
Paranoid. Combative. Quick to anger. His new company was barely a year old when a group of employees went above William's head, to the owner of the parent company that had funded their efforts, and demanded he fire William. When that failed they left to start their own rival company. William was hurt. He told them they were traitors, and that they'd never be successful.
William was right about a lot of things. That silicon would be a much more suitable material for transistors than germanium. That those eight individuals would become known as traitors.
They were many things. Unsuccessful they were not.
Robert Noyce. Gordon Moore. Eugene Kleiner. Victor Grinich. Julius Blank. Jean Hoerni. Jay Last. They're what is now known as the Traitorous Eight.
Together they founded Fairchild Semiconductor. Then some left to found Intel. Others AMD. Eugene teamed up with another partner to start the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Others still went off to build technology that enabled the Japanese digital watch revolution by companies such as Seiko in the 70's & 80's. There's a traceable lineage of direct involvement of William's early team in companies beyond Intel, AMD, and KPCB and into Amazon, Netscape, Symantec, Intuit, Macromedia, Sun Microsystems, and many more. As many as 65 of the companies that have come to define our progression into a digital age.
And that doesn't even consider the way in which every company on the planet has been effected by that early discovery. How every single act of invention and progress in our entire history as a species has been improved, if not completely reinvented, to take advantage of those silicon transistors. That it has completely changed the way we eat. The way we travel. The way we learn. The way we heal. And the way we communicate with each other.
The very law that has predicted the pace of this innovation was discovered by one of this very eight, and it holds his name. Over 50 years later it still holds true.
Do it again
It feels like every major city is trying to replicate the success of Silicon Valley these days. Desperate to extract that special essence that makes it so unique. That allows it to now, and forever, hold a special place in history in terms of its impact on the world. And in its continued impact for over half a century.
There's the huge of investments by governments. Federal. Local. Would-be founders bemoan the lack of access to capital, so there's tax incentives to try and make that happen. Partnerships with foreign cities to try and encourage more trade and transfer between locations. Corporate innovation programs to inspire "intrapreneurs" to reinvigorate tired business models and product strategies.
What if it was never about the capital though?
What if all it ever needed was temperate weather, a handful of talented and motivated people, and one really bad manager? William Bradford Shockley Jr.