From Betrayal to Innovation: How the Traitorous Eight Shaped Silicon Valley
THE TRAITOROUS EIGHT:
These 8 backstabbed their professor and created their own company using his research. While that sounds pretty bad, they weren’t exactly trying to screw over their professor. They just wanted freedom and the ability to lead their own company. Little did they know that this betrayal would end up being the foundation of not just Silicon Valley but modern tech as a whole. Why you ask? Well, these were the men who commercialized semiconductor technology or silicon wafers hence the name silicon valley. Also, you know how there’s a bunch of debate regarding who’s the better chip maker AMD or Intel? Well, these guys created both.
In fact, they also played integral roles in the creation of Apple, Google, Oracle, Facebook, Cisco, Applied Materials, Nvidia, Juniper Networks, Sun Microsystems, Netscape, and all of these other companies as well just to name a few. But, despite their revolutionary contribution to the tech scene, unless you’re a tech scholar, you’ve probably never even heard of them. I mean, have you ever heard of Sheldon Roberts or Eugene Kleiner, or Julius Blank? Or what about their professor William Shockley? I’m gonna guess probably not. So, here’s the insane untold story of the traitorous 8 and the creation of Silicon Valley.
THE SILICON MAN:
Taking a look back, the story of Silicon Valley can be traced back to a man named William Bradford Shockley Jr. He was born on February 13, 1910, in London, but most of his childhood would be spent in the family’s hometown of Palo Alto, California. Shockley didn’t have the strongest of backgrounds, but he definitely had grit ingrained in his blood. His father worked the dangerous job of being a mining engineer and his mother followed in the same footsteps. Fun fact, his mother would become America’s first female deputy mining surveyor. So, these guys were very much about the no pain no gain mentality and they expected nothing less from Shockley Jr. In fact, they would recruit a Stanford professor who lived nearby to teach Shockley physics at a very young age.
Clearly, getting Shockley educated was a top priority for his parents, but they weren’t exactly fans of the public school system. They actually particularly hated public schools and this was the main reason that Shockley was homeschooled until the age of 8. This also played well with the fact that Shockley regularly had violent tantrums and didn’t get along with other children all that well. It looks like this was something that Shockley never really left behind, but anyway, it looks like Shockley more than fulfilled his parent’s dream as he didn’t just get educated, he became a genius. He would graduate from Caltech in 1932 with a bachelors and MIT in 1936 with a Ph.D. And after graduation, he would turn around and join the highly prestigious Bell Labs. If you don’t know about Bell Labs, think Google Moonshot factory but 100 years ago. Shockley stuck around here for a couple of years until WW2 broke out at which point he became a research director at Columbia University. His job was originally to develop radar technology that could detect submarines, but he ended up becoming quite close to war leaders.
In fact, the War Department asked Shockley to estimate the death toll of a certain explosion that marked the end of WW2. Anyway, Shockley would return to Bell Labs following the war and begin researching transistors. Spoiler alert, this research would end up creating modern technology, but it was by no means a fast or easy process. In the early days, Shockley saw nothing but failure with his external electrical field experiments on semiconductors. But, over time, Shockley and his colleagues were able to eliminate one concern after another and they created the junction transistor in 1951. The creation of this transistor was very much a team effort between Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain. But, the media often gave all the credit to Shockley given that he was the leader. Shockley would go out of his to give credit to his partners whenever possible. But Bardeen and Brattain still felt pretty resentful, and they would both end up leaving in the 1950s, but Shockley was just getting started. In 1956, Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. So, clearly, these guys were no doubt world-class, but with Bardeen and Brattain gone, Shockley needed a new team. This time, he opted to recruit a bunch of Ph.D. students instead of already distinguished researchers. He probably thought that he would have an easier time managing students than his peers. Oh how wrong he was.
Shockley would found Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California in 1956. He would go on to recruit a bunch of Ph.D. students and recent grads to the company. Their goal was to make groundbreaking discoveries regarding silicon wafers. Let’s just say, they definitely ended up accomplishing this, but it was by no means smooth sailing. You know how we talked about Shockley’s violent tantrums as a child, well, these characteristics were only magnified at Shockley Semiconductor, and the reason isn’t rocket science. Shockley had literally won a Nobel Prize by the age of 46, so he felt like he was the daddy of the semiconductors as a whole. And technically, he wasn’t wrong, but that by no means excuses his behavior. Shockley has been described as the worst manager in the history of electronics. He was autocratic, domineering, erratic, hard to please, and highly egotistical just to name a few traits.
But, to be honest, that’s not all that different from Steve Jobs or Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or really any well-known figure. Not being like this is really the exception when it comes to figures like this. But, you could definitely say that Shockley took this to another level. For example, all phone calls in the company were recorded, staff wasn’t allowed to share results with each other without Shockley’s permission, and Shockley even threatened to use lie detectors at one point.
This lack of trust wasn’t exactly the characteristic of a great boss, but what really screwed over Shockley was his vision for the company. You see, 8 of Shockley’s best researchers felt that the company should focus on silicon base semiconductors and commercialize the idea, but for some reason, Shockley didn’t want to pursue this idea. This simply led to even more disagreements and bad blood and it wasn’t long till researchers started resigning. Most of them would just go ahead and join laboratories and research teams in adjacent fields. But, our traitorous eight didn’t want to pursue a different field.
They could see that Shockley had a winner, it just had to be executed correctly. The group described it as solving the “Shockley problem”. Their first instinct wasn’t to leave though. They actually tried talking to the investors of Shockley Semiconductor and asked them to reign in Shockley, but they weren’t exactly on board with this idea. So, our traitorous 8 decided to find their own investors in March of 1957. The man who pulled the trigger was Eugene Kleiner. Kleiner was one of the few people Shockley trusted, so when he requested a few days off to visit an exhibition in LA, Shockley didn’t think twice. But, maybe he should’ve as Kleiner would end up traveling to New York instead and pitching to investors.
Finding an investor was actually super difficult. It’s not that investors weren’t interested in the idea but they wanted something that was closer to home. Trying to manage these brainiacs in California from New York seemed like a daunting task, to say the least. But, they eventually found someone who was willing to take the plunge: Sherman Fairchild. Sherman agreed to loan our 8 protagonists $1.38 million or the equivalent of $14.8 million today. And with that, Fairchild Semiconductor was established and the 8 geniuses from Shockley Semiconductor would officially become the traitorous 8.
FAIRCHILD THE BRAINCHILD:
Our 8 would instantly get to work on commercializing silicon wafers. Their first goal was to produce silicon wafers for digital devices based on the research of Bell Labs and Shockley. I do gotta say though, they didn’t rip off the tech completely. They would actually try to improve it themselves to build an even bigger lead. They would set out on improving the technology using three different methods each of which was led by one of the traitorous 8. The method that ended up coming out on top was the one that was led by Gordon Moore. If you’ve ever heard of Moore’s law, well this is the guy. Fairchild would go on to implement Moore’s discoveries into Shockley’s research and within no time, the company was mass-producing silicon wafers. And let’s just say, Fairchild destroyed the competition.
Throughout the early 1960s, they were the undisputed king of semiconductors. But, obviously, the company didn’t keep this lead as they have since disappeared into oblivion, so what happened? Well, it was the greed of Sherman Fairchild. You see, one of the conditions of funding the company was that Sherman reserved the right to buy out the stakes of the partners at any time. Ideally, this clause was in place so that Sherman could easily manage any bad actors. If someone was causing issues and not being a team player, well then, Sherman could just buy them out. But, the problem arose when Sherman started buying out partners just because he could. It’s no wonder why Sherman decided to do this. From his perspective, Fairchild already had a massive lead. So, he no longer needed the assistance of the traitorous eight. You could say the traitorous eight got a taste of their own medicine but not really. The problem with Sherman’s theory was that he was just straight-up wrong. The reality is that a lead within the semiconductor industry doesn’t mean anything.
Moore’s law suggests that the number of transistors in a circuit doubles every 2 years. There’s some debate about whether this is still true today, but it was more than true in the 1960s. In fact, transistors were doubling every single year, and the reason Moore’s law states every 2 years is because Gordon was trying to be conservative. So, while Fairchild did have a massive lead, if they slept for 1 year they would lose it all, and that’s exactly what happened. As Sherman bought out the stakes of the traitorous eight, they would slowly leave 1 by 1, and by the end of the 1960s, they were all gone. From there, Fairchild would begin its descent toward irrelevancy, but our 8 heroes were far from being done.
Likely the two most notable men from the traitorous eight are Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In 1968, this duo would go on to found Intel, you may have heard of them. Ironically, their biggest competitor, AMD was also founded by ex-Fairchild employees. In fact, it was created by Jerry Sanders and 7 other ex-Fairchild employees. You could say that these were yet another traitorous 8. It doesn’t stop with just Intel and AMD though. Yet another tech company created by these eight is Amelco. 4 of the original eight: Jay Last, Jean Hoerni, Eugene Kleiner, and Sheldon Roberts founded this company and it would eventually become modern-day Teledyne. You probably haven’t heard of this company, but they’re worth $20 billion.
Some of the other members from the original 8 ended up taking another path. Eugene Kleiner for example founded his own VC firm with the help of Tom Perkins. And these guys would go on to fund/create Compaq, Intuit, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Amazon, and dozens of other smaller companies. In the meantime, another one of our heroes, Victor Grinich, would go on to become a professor at Stanford where he published a textbook called Introduction to Integrated Circuits. This textbook would become the basis for how circuits are taught in schools and universities around the world. So, who knows how many tech geniuses this guy inspired? Probably the least accomplished of the 8 but still super accomplished is Julius Blank. After Fairchild, he become a consultant for startups and eventually retired in a retirement home right across from his office at Fairchild.
Also, if you’re wondering about Shockley, he never understood why these 8 lefts, but without a strong team, he couldn’t really make much progress, and he would end up as a Stanford professor just like his neighbor from his childhood. But, while Shockley never hit the mega jackpot himself, and though he had some rather odd perspectives, his contribution to the tech world is unquestionable. It was from his little lab in the 1950s that the entirety of Silicon Valley was born and that’s the story of the traitorous 8. Did you know about our heroes or I guess our anti-heroes? Comment that down below. Also, drop a like if you wanna hear more untold tech stories.
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