It must be strange to visit a history museum to look at the history that you, yourself, made.
But there they were, a half-dozen guys who once worked together, strolling through the Computer History Museum, headed to an exhibit near the back; the one that heralded the arrival of silicon in the place we now call Silicon Valley.
"Four-layer diodes, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, 1960," Jacques Beaudouin says, reading the description in the glass case containing metal gizmos that look more like jewelry than transistors. "Yeah, that's about right."
Beaudouin would know. He worked at Shockley in 1960, a time when Silicon Valley was literally making a name for itself by using silicon to create the semiconductors that changed the world. He'd held the museum piece in his hand. In fact, he donated the primitive-looking device to the computer museum in Mountain View.
Feel weird? I ask Beaudouin.
"Yeah, it is kind of," he says. "To think something you touched or handled would be in a museum in your lifetime."
Not that Beaudouin was complaining. He was proud of the work he did for Nobel laureate William Shockley in his Mountain View lab, which was on San Antonio Road in a building that now houses a Halal food market. It was in that building that Shockley made history in 1956 by forming the first known company to work on silicon devices in the valley.
But history is messy and Shockley is known for many other things: He was the impossible boss who drove away the Traitorous Eight -- a group that included those who went on to found Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel (INTC), while inspiring dozens of semiconductor spinoffs. He was the Stanford professor who late in life, long after San Antonio Road, embraced eugenics and a disturbing and discredited theory that whites are genetically superior to blacks.
Of course the men in the museum know all that, but they would rather it not detract from what they accomplished. They were at the museum for a reunion, a celebration of the work they did together more than a half-century ago.
"We were quite a team," says Hans Queisser, a Shockley physicist who was a solar cell pioneer in the 1960s and went on to contribute significantly to the invention of the television remote control. (God bless him.) "We had tough times. People were fired and Shockley was not an easy boss. So there was an esprit de corps."
There still is an esprit de corps and maybe the smallest of chips on the shoulders of the men who traveled from Germany, Utah and down the street for the reunion. These men, all in their 70s and 80s, are not from a generation of boasters. These are guys who worked their slide rules; sketched their schematics; tried, failed and tried again; and didn't bother crowing about their success. But now they can't help feeling that maybe their contribution is being eclipsed to the point of being extinguished.
What he means is not everything good in the valley emanated from the one-car HP garage on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto (a plaque even declares it "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley") or from the university where Bill Hewlett and David Packard studied.
In truth, the hard work in silicon started one town over, the alums said over and over again during a luncheon they held between the museum tour and a visit to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford.
"It was a challenge to work with silicon," Beaudouin says, explaining that there was no established handbook at the time for producing or processing the element. "Shockley took that challenge and said, 'We've got to do it. That's the material of the future.'"
Working for Shockley at Shockley was a shared experience that still binds these men together. More than 50 years after they worked together, years after they scattered to put what they learned at Shockley to use in new jobs, they still come together to honor that time. They know they helped form the digital building blocks that prompted the revolution leading to the personal computer, the Internet, Google (GOOG), Facebook, Apple (AAPL) and the rest. "There is a certain pride that Silicon Valley started at 391 San Antonio Road," Queisser says.
Of course there is. And in the end, the men in the museum are not looking for thanks for what they accomplished. Instead, they're just looking to make sure that they aren't forgotten.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
Key Dates in Shockley History
1947: Working at Bell Labs with fellow physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, William Shockley was among those who invented the transistor, a device destined to change the world.
1956: Shockley and Arnold Beckman open Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in a rented building at 391 San Antonio Road in Mountain View. Shockley hires top engineers including Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, who eventually would go on to found Intel.
1956: Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain are awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.
1957: Noyce, Moore and six others dubbed "The Traitorous Eight" quit Shockley en masse, frustrated with the boss's poor management style and his reluctance to explore different ways to put his semiconductor breakthroughs to work. The eight start Fairchild Semiconductor, which ultimately pioneered mass production of the integrated circuit and launched the chip industry in Silicon Valley.
1960 Beckman sells Shockley Semiconductor to Clevite. Shockley stays on for a time, before taking a faculty position at Stanford University.
1968: Noyce, Moore and Andy Grove start Intel, now the largest chipmaker in the world.
1989: Shockley dies at age 79.
Sources: Computer History Museum, Intel, Mercury News reporting