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Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age Paperback – January 8, 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 378 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (January 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230551920
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230551923
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #205,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Shurkin is a good storyteller, and better still as a researcher of the personal facts." --Nobel laureate Professor Philip Anderson, Times Higher Educational Supplement
"Shurkin deftly tackles this complex figure -- and his unraveling -- and delivers an unflinching portrait of a tragic life."--Seed Magazine
"At last, the definitive, unstinting biography of this hugely important historical figure--complete with all his contradictions and idiosyncrasies."--Michael Riordan, coauthor of Crystal Fire
"I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions."--Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life
"Shurkin does a good job of portraying a difficult man--a vivid portrait."--NewScientist
Praise for Engines of the Mind:
"A popularized, clearly written history of computing...beautifully captures the hectic, creative air at the Moore School as young engineers labored under John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to construct ENIAC..."--The Wall Street Journal

"A fine book, full of interesting angles and lively stuff...Shurkin has the same lively facility for writing clearly about computers that Robert Heilbroner has for writing about economics...Shurkin writes a crisp newspaperly style, has a good eye for color and has created a fine book."--Boston Globe

"Offers a glimpse of science at both its finest and most mundane...clearly and vivaciously written."--ALA Booklist
"The other wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to convey the excitement of scientific inquiry and invention."--New York Sun
"FIVE STARS: this gripping biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre of the great names of electronics. Recommended." --Brian Clegg, author of The God Effect and Light Years
"I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions." --Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life
"Masterfully walks the fine line between presenting Shockley as purely evil and legitimizing his more controversial theories--very readable." --Physics World
"This portrait of a flawed giant reveals a man crushed under the weight of his own pathological insecurities." --David Bodanis, Discover 

"Shurkin reveals Shockley to be a fascinating example of an Aristotelian tragic hero--riveting." --Nature
"This informed and candid biography asks, 'Why did a man so brilliant deliberately destroy himself?'" --Skeptical Inquiry

Praise for Terman's Kids:
"While Shurkin views his subject in a sympathetic light, he makes no apologies for Terman's flaws as a scientist and a human being...his Midwestern biases, sexism, his moral humbuggery."--Philadelphia Inquirer

About the Author

Joel N. Shurkin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of many books, including Engines of the Mind and Terman's Kids. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy M. Harris on May 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Shockley generated some mild controversy as a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the transistor, and a firestorm of controversy as an investigator of supposed linkages between race and intelligence. Mr. Shurkin sheds considerable light on both disputes, as well as on those facets of Shockley's personality which occasionally drifted from merely difficult into the scarier modes of overbearing and compulsive. The author's own attitude toward his subject leans, quite understandably, toward an uneasy blend of admiration and exasperation.

The transistor Nobel was awarded in 1954 to Shockley and his Bell Labs colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. A problematic aspect of the choice to honor all three was that although Shockley nominally led the research group, his direct involvement in the original (point contact) transistor invention was minimal. He did, however, have a legitimate conceptual claim to the later junction-type device, which became the practical transistor we know today. Shurkin's description of the contentious priority issues involved, and the human interactions among the principals, is fascinating.

One might say it's ironically fitting that a self-assured, iconoclastic, socially tone-deaf character like Shockley would blunder into the potential minefield of race/intelligence studies. On top of that, he chose the most politically radioactive combination possible -- white vs. black. The spectrum of opinion on that topic was (and is) bracketed at one end by bigots who just knew there must be an intelligence gap, and at the other end by knee-jerk egalitarians who just knew there couldn't possibly be one. The bigots embarrassed Shockley with unwanted support, and the egalitarians excoriated him for even looking at the question.
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32 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Donald B. Siano on August 29, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Joel Shurkin has done a reasonably good job in this book, and it is well worth reading if you have an interest in the history of technology and the forces that shape our times. Shockley was a very important player in the development of the transistor at Bell Labs, and his story has a lot to inform the reader about how scientists in an industrial laboratory work together in a situation that demands cooperation to get to the objective, and the competitive personalities that are found in people who excel. The story is usually told in a very oversimplified version like this: "Bardeen and Brattain invented the transistor and their boss, Shockley took the credit. He later went off the deep end into eugenics and racism." Shurkin shows that there was a whole lot more to the story and presents a much more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of this complicated man.

Apportioning credit in a group effort in an industrial setting is difficult and can be contentious even despite the best intentions of all concerned. Documentation is sketchy, memories often fail, lawyers are involved, and management has its own axes to grind. I've seen all this at first-hand in a large industrial laboratory, and have participated in endless lunchtime conversations on the twists and turns the patent process takes. Sometimes hard feelings in supposedly mature scientists sour relationships and even sever productive friendships. Bruising, but inevitable, in a way...

Shockley actually had three major phases in his working life as a scientist. In the first, he was an important and productive worker in the then new field of operations research applied to warfare in WWII.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By lector avidus on March 2, 2009
Format: Paperback
Joel Shurkin, a science writer and author, has written this informative but hardly authoritative biography of William Shockley, a Nobel laureate and scientist whose accomplishments include:

- helping the US Navy to win the Second World War with his spectacular work in Operational Research,
- his pioneering work on nuclear fission that was suppressed because it was an embarrassment to the government labs he beat to the punch,
- his invention of a transistor,
- his close proximity to the invention of the first transistor, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize,
- his being an accomplished professor at Stanford
- and his unhappy championing of a link between race and intelligence, which brought him into the close proximity of eugenic thinking, and made many deeply dislike him, such that his public appearances were often accompanied by demonstrations.

I enjoyed this book as a chronicle of Shockley's life, but found it to be disappointing in that I felt that it failed to explain why Shockley did what he did, most particularly, why did Shockley insist on publicly discussing his eugenic views? Was it because he lived for the notoriety? Was it due to a form of egomania? Can it be attributed to his political views? Shurkin doesn't tell us.

Shockley was, by all accounts, a very difficult, even insufferable, person, who, by the time he breathed his last, had few friends. To my mind it's clear that he suffered from what psychologists would describe as a personality disorder, and maybe even something similar to Asperger's. Shurkin explains these facts in a single paragraph; yet perhaps more than any other fact, they explain the trajectory of his life, the purported focus of this book.
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