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William Shockley hogged all the credit

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Hailed as a creative genius, physicist ­William Shockley mastered quantum theory and led a team to invent the transistor. But he did it the hard way.

Soon after World War II ended in 1945, Shockley supervised a group of brilliant researchers at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. They met almost daily to hash out ideas.

But Shockley didn’t mesh well with the group. He’d stand at a chalkboard and jot suggestions—both his own and from his team.

One of its members, Walter Brattain, liked to pace along the back of the room and gently lambaste Shockley’s input. He’d bet Shockley $1 that his proposals would fail.

Rather than take such friendly competition in stride, Shockley took offense. He once paid Brattain in 10 dimes as a show of annoyance.

More seriously, Shockley resented his team for coming up with the basis for the transistor in late 1947. While Shockley was going in one direction, Brattain and another researcher, John Bardeen, made the breakthrough that led to the transistor.

Instead of feeling proud of his two ­colleagues for their triumph, Shockley was upset. He regretted that he wasn’t part of the crew that hatched the new device.

Despite their close collaboration up to that point, Shockley turned against Brattain and Bardeen. He severed his friendship with them and spent countless hours plotting to claim credit for the invention.

Two months later, Shockley violated protocol by interrupting a Bell Labs meeting to reveal his own version of the device. Seated in the audience, Brattain and Bardeen were shocked that their leader had sprung his secretive idea on the group instead of honoring Bell Labs’ culture of collaboration.

— Adapted from The Innovators, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster.

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