Now you’re talking..!

Bell Labs to Silicon Valley – Part 2

Aftermath of Invention of Transistor and William Shockley

Silicon Valley Roots Shockley Semiconductor Lab

Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory – The Building Which Gave Birth to “Silicon Valley”

It was not clear whether Bell Labs knew the gravity of the invention they did in 1947. This is a very interesting question which is a bit hard to find a unique answer. I say so because; it is not Bell Labs which is experiencing the real fruits of transistor. Until the invention of transistor there was no place in the earth which had the generous of Bell Labs. After the invention of transistor, did Bell Labs loose the generousness it had? This would be a fascinating question to answer.

Though William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain were the members of the team which invented the transistor, some part of the credit should go to the Head of Research – Mervin Kelly at that time. He was the person who pushed this team to start the research in 1945. Formation of the research team was a real radical move where he ignored most of the senior researchers and giving the leadership to William Shockley who was a young and energetic physicist at that time. Kelly did not put physicists with physicists, chemists with chemists, engineers with engineers, etc. He made up the team more diverse by including people with diverse backgrounds which ultimately became the reason for the success in 1947.

12/2/1965 William B. Shockley, Nobel Laureate in physics

William Shockley – Won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 Along With John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. He Started His Career at Bell Labs, Moved to Silicon Valley to Start Shockley Semiconductors and Later Became a Professor at Stanford University.

It is said that transistor research team was an intensively collaborative group. William Shockley has done a great job in leading the team as a co-leader. He has supported all the norms and values of Bell Labs during the period between 1945 – 1947. This was the era where there were no cubicles. All the managers were practicing open door policy where anyone could approach anyone at anytime. William Shockley was also practicing these things while engaging with the research.

After the invention Bardeen and Brattain started further development of the device. They were able to come up with an improved version of the transistor – point contact transistor. William Shockley did not like this advancement made by his subordinates. He felt jealous about it. This jealousy leads him to develop the junction transistor. This shows that even though he felt jealous, he liked the idea of improving the transistor. But this act of William Shockley was something against the norms and values of Bell Labs at that time. One of the norms at Bell Labs at that time was not to compete even with subordinates you manage. Mervin Kelly was the prime example for this. Though he encouraged the set of youngsters to come up with a solution to solve the issues faced by telecommunication switching system, he knew that the thing that he spent majority of his life developing would become irrelevant once William Shockley’s team come up with a solution. He knew that Vacuum Tubes would become irrelevant. But he had that great quality of looking at the success of his subordinates and celebrating it with them while giving the credit. But unfortunately or fortunately (This is a dilemma) William Shockley did not have that.

When Jon Gertner interviewed the Nobel Prize Winner Phil Anderson, he has said that William Shockley could never be forgiven for the transgression William Shockley made. William Shockley’s jealousy made Bardeen quit Bell Labs and move to Illinois to become a Professor. Brattain did not quit Bell Labs. But he never took up assignments with William Shockley. The most generous research team of 20th century broke apart due to the unacceptable behaviour of William Shockley.

After the incident William Shockley stuck in a middle management position. Mervin Kelly never expected the once an intensively collaborative team to broke apart as it happened. He was disappointed by the behaviour of William Shockley. Kelly realized that William Shockley is never going to succeed in managing people. He decided to get the contribution of greatest abilities and phenomenal intellect of William Shockley to projects which William Shockley could play a part as a team member.

But William Shockley had other ideas. He wanted to move up the management ladder. Due to lack of advancement he got frustrated. He took a decision in 1955 and quit Bell Labs and New Jersey. He moved to Santa Clara valley, California where he decided to put up his own company. He set up “Shockley Semiconductors” in nearby Mountain View in 1956. Initially he tried to hire some of his former workers from Bell Labs, but none of them wanted to leave the east coast, then the center of most high-tech research. Instead, he assembled a team of young scientists and engineers.

Later the area which William Shockley set up his own company became home for companies which changed the direction of whole human civilization. The place where William Shockley put up his company is now known as “SILICON VALLEY”, which is the home for Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. With time passes Bell Labs started to lose its grip as the premier center for technological innovation and R&D. Most tech people started to come to silicon valley and “Mushroom Effect of Entrepreneurship” made silicon valley the premier center for technological innovation and R&D in the world. Silicon Valley still holds that crown.

Bell Labs to Silicon Valley – Part 1

Early Times – Inauguration of Bell Labs to the invention of transistor

History is ‘something’ worth looking at because it provides us the details which would help us develops future strategies, because it gives us an insight on how things are related to one another. Telecommunications is a field which has a very interesting history which is worth looking at. If you want to know much more about what I’m about to say please look at first few chapters of Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’.


Jon Gertner and his book ‘The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’

As per my view there is one place which whole world turns in to when it comes to innovation and R&D. That is Silicon Valley, USA. It is true that Asia is rising. But still Silicon Valley continues to grow and companies will not stop going in search of help to Silicon Valley. But before Silicon Valley came in to the scene, there was another place which could be considered as the Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley. That was Bell Labs, which is situated in New Jersey, United States of America.

Currently, AT&T is the largest provider both of mobile telephony and of fixed telephony in the United States, and also provides broadband subscription services. Western Electric had been the manufacturing subsidiary of AT&T from 1881 to 1995. Until 1925 those two organizations had two different engineering units. Until 1925 two engineering units had tension and competition between them. This tension and competition lead to the creation of standalone lab in New Jersey. In 1925 Bell Labs was inaugurated.

The idea of setting up Bell Labs was to develop ideas inside Bell Labs and transferring those ideas and developments to Western Electric for manufacturing while AT&T does the deployment. Just like in Silicon Valley, Bell Labs also had an eco-system which supported innovation and R&D. They had money and they had time. Time is something which today’s engineers don’t have. To give you an idea on how Bell Lab has contributed to the development of Telecommunications, the list of a few developments which had come through Bell Labs would be a good yardstick. Some revolutionary inventions are as follows.

  • Point contact transistor
  • Junction transistor
  • Shannon’s information theory
  • Communication satellites
  • Unix Operating System
  • C Language
  • Theory of laser

An early stage of Bell Labs was an interesting one. With AT&T having all sorts of trouble with absence of dial tone, etc problems which had to be solved kept on coming to Bell Labs. It had been a problem rich environment.

With the use of vacuum tubes researchers at Bell labs was able to develop a successful solution for a cross country phone link. This solution was successfully deployed by AT&T and this project gave the credibility to Bell Labs. At one stage Bell Labs employed more than 15000 employees out of which 1200 were PhD holders.

The reason why Bell Labs became successful was also a very interesting story. The main reason was, that it was connected to AT&T. AT&T faced loads of practical problems every day.  AT&T received solutions from Bell Labs for these problems and they hold the monopoly in the telecommunication market at that time. With AT&T, Bell Labs also grew rapidly. The things invented, manufactured and deployed by Bell Labs, Western Electric and AT&T stayed in the market for 20-30 years. That was the nature of monopoly they had at that time.


Bill Gates has once stated that if he had the ability to take part in a time travel his first stop would be Bell Labs on November 1947. Why would Bill Gates stop there? Why is Bell Labs such an inviting place to visit?

AT&T had two issues which were problematic for their operation. One was telephone switches, because they broke all the time. And manual switching process was slow. One fine day, in the aftermath of World War 2, Mervin J. – Head of Research who later became The President of Bell Labs in the period between 1951 – 1959., talked to a newly hired young physicist William Shockley and said that it would be great if the manual switches can be replaced by something electronic. Vacuum tubes were also giving problems because they tend to broke fairly often, consume more power, etc.

Kelly formed the team which developed the transistor which was lead by Shockley. Kelly had been a person who had always tried to go after things which were not known to anyone and which he thought as loop holes. On November 1947 the device which changed the direction of human civilization was invented in Bell Labs. Transistor was invented on November 1947. Gravity of the invention of transistor is unimaginable because despite the transistor there would have been no fancy items such as Samsung Galaxies, iPhones and all other fancy electronic items you could imagine of.