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John Lanchester’s “Putting the Silicon in Silicon Valley,” London Review of Books, March 16, 2023, offers information galore about our silicon chip age. At almost 6000 words, the article is long even by LRB erudite standards. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are several tidbits from it.
Chris Miller’s Book. Lanchester is reviewing an up-to-date history of the transistor, from its replacement of vacuum tubes in the earliest computers to today’s international showdown between the U.S and China.
“If you want a guide to how we got here,” Lanchester writes, “you won’t do better than Chris Miller’s comprehensive, eye-opening Chip War.”
Vacuum Tube Digitals. Miller begins with fundamentals: “The electric current running through the tube could be switched on and off, performing a function not unlike an abacus bead moving back and forth across a wooden rod. A tube turned on was coded as a 1 while the vacuum tube turned off was a 0. These two digits could produce any number using a system of binary counting – and therefore could theoretically execute many types of computation.”
Lanchester observes, “The tubes made complex computations possible, but they were unwieldy, both prone to breakage and laborious to repair. ENIAC, the US army’s world-leading computer, introduced in 1946, used 18,000 vacuum tubes to calculate artillery trajectories faster and more accurately than any human. That made it revolutionary, but its utility was limited by the fact that it was the size of a room, and that whenever a single tube failed, which happened on average every two days, the whole machine broke down.”
Enter Bell Lab’s William Shockley (boo), John Bardeen and Walter Brattain (hurrah). “On 23 December 1947,” Lanchester writes, “they demonstrated the first working transistor. That invention won the three men the Nobel Prize for physics in 1956.”
Lanchester continues, “Shockley seems to have been peeved that it was Bardeen and Brattain who created that first circuit. Because Shockley ran the lab, he was able gradually to stop them working on transistors. Bardeen left for the University of Illinois, where he went on to do foundational work on superconductivity, becoming the first and only person to win a second Nobel Prize in physics.”
Unlike Mother. Lanchester observes, “There’s no way round the fact that the founder of Silicon Valley was an outstandingly horrible human being. Shockley was a terrible manager and a passionate racist, who devoted his post-Nobel decades to publicising home-brewed theories about ‘dysgenics’ or genetic degradation and racial differences being a form of natural ‘colour-coding’ to warn about low intelligence.”
By contrast, his mother, May Bradford Shockley, sounds like a perfect nice person: Lanchester recounts, “… in 1904 she had become the only female deputy surveyor of minerals in the US. Her affection for Palo Alto—she had gone to university at Stanford—led her to retire there. That fact in turn led Shockley in 1956 to found his company down the road in Mountain View, now better known as the home of Google. In those days that part of the world was called the Santa Clara Valley. It goes by a different name today. May Bradford Shockley, who spent the latter part of her life as a rather good painter and who died in 1977 at the age of 97, is the reason Silicon Valley is where it is.”
Tomorrow in Part 2 we bring matters up to date with global aspects of ubiquitous microchips of infinitesimal complexity. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023