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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 623-625

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Book Review

Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age

Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age. By Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1997. Pp. x+352; illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $27.50.

Having gone to school at Hollywood High and fallen under the spell of movie culture, William Bradford Shockley fancied himself, according to fellow physicist Frederick Seitz, "a cross between Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Bulldog Drummond, with perhaps a dash of Ronald Colman." An early scene in Crystal Fire captures Seitz and Shockley in September 1932 as they head cross-country in Shockley's DeSoto to attend eastern graduate schools in their quest to learn more about the new European theories of quantum mechanics. Seitz notices a loaded pistol in the glove compartment and is then unnerved one night as his flamboyant traveling companion impulsively fires off several rounds into the dark at some howling coyotes, an incident that nearly lands Shockley in jail. The episode also sets the tone for the B movie that was Shockley's life. Shooting from the hip was definitely his style--a style that gave him startling victories but also got him into serious trouble.

Winner in 1999 of SHOT's premiere Sally Hacker Prize for books aimed at nonacademic audiences, Crystal Fire (a paperback edition was published in 1998, with the slightly expanded title Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age) weaves this anecdote and other stories into an absorbing, historically precise narrative that reads in parts like a suspense novel. Michael Riordan, an award-winning science writer, and Lillian Hoddeson, a well-known historian of particle physics, [End Page 623] combine their considerable talents to spark a crystal fire of their own in this celebration of the transistor's fiftieth anniversary. Although the outcome is known, the plot is full of twists and turns, and at critical moments serendipity intervenes. First-person accounts based on extensive archival research and tape-recorded interviews lend the story authenticity and human immediacy. Even though the cast of characters is large and the story complicated, the star of the tale, at least as understood by Riordan and Hoddeson, is unquestionably William Shockley--who indeed would accept nothing less than a starring role in anything.

While carrying the story through the invention of the integrated circuit, Crystal Fire focuses heavily on Shockley's years at Bell Labs, where he led the team that in 1947 jury-rigged the first solid-state amplifier from a piece of germanium, a paper clip, gold foil, and "gu." The so-called "point-contact" device was soon dubbed the transistor for its dual properties of "trans-conductance" and "trans-resistance." The book's dramatic conflict revolves around Shockley's attempt to grab the inventing spotlight and patent priorities from his Bell Labs subordinates, the gifted experimentalist Walter Brattain and the equally brilliant theorist John Bardeen, who eventually shared with him the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. Shockley's impulsive, bruising, ego-driven inventing style opened a deep and permanent chasm between him and his frustrated, deeply disappointed partners, whom Riordan and Hoddeson credit as the real inventors of the transistor. In reality, as the authors further explain, the fullest realization of the invention required their complementary talents: Brattain's experimental genius, Bardeen's theoretical depth and discipline, and Shockley's visionary boldness.

After all is said and done, Shockley emerges as an authentic if deeply flawed genius. The authors credit him with the invention of the junction and field-effect transistors, commercially successful amplifiers that became the electronics industry workhorses. Far more than either Brattain or Bardeen, who regarded the transistor as only a sturdy and tiny replacement for the vacuum tube, he foresaw the device's amazing commercial potential, especially its role as the computer's "ideal nerve cell." In leaving Bell Labs and organizing the country's first start-up firm in solid-state electronics, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, he qualifies also as the father...


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