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R. Victor Jones

  • Born: June 8, 1929, Oakland, California

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0336
Interview Date: April 18, 2006
Location: via Telephone,
Interviewer: David C. Brock
No. of pages: 46
Minutes: 151
Sponsor: Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

  Abstract of Interview

R. Victor Jones grew up in Oakland, California, son of Welsh immigrants. His father was a machinist, and Victor learned many useful mechanical skills from him. From a young age Jones was interested in physics, reading a great deal about the new fields of atomic and nuclear physics. He also liked to build things, his largest creation being an oscilloscope. He attended local public schools, where he says he was an indifferent student, except in physics and chemistry, which he loved.

Jones matriculated into the University of California, Berkeley, at which point he began to enjoy studying and to work hard. He entered the lab of Walter Knight, where he worked in the new field of nuclear magnetic resonance, and discovered the joy of doing research and of intellectual discourse.

Jones continued into graduate school at Berkeley in great part because there were few jobs. He worked in Carson Jeffries’s lab, where his thesis work dealt with electron transport in a molecular afterglow. The Korean War again initiated a demand for sophisticated electronics, and Jones accepted a job with Bell [Telephone] Laboratories, where he would be able to pursue his work in gas discharge. He was finishing his thesis work when William Shockley walked into his lab and began asking questions. An intense afternoon and evening of discussion with Shockley led into aggressive recruitment until Jones finally accepted Shockley’s offer of a job at the new Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.

Shockley believed semiconductors were the wave of the future, and he espoused diffused-base technology. Shockley insisted on using only silicon, which at that time was extremely difficult to work with. He at once put Jones to work on the four-layer diode; he also used Jones to help him recruit other scientists. There were difficulties encountered in getting the lab started, though he was able to recruit a number of scientists. From the outset, lab work was compartmentalized and Shockley frequently changed the goals of the lab. From Jones’s perspective, Shockley was a genius that was shortsighted because he had no use for magnetic resonance.

Uncomfortable in the high-stress atmosphere of the lab and wanting to work with his primary interest, electromagnetic theory, Jones decided after only two years to look for work in the academy, where he expected to be able to "decompress."  Arnold Beckman, one of Shockley’s financiers, tried to hire Jones as a liaison to Shockley, but Jones turned Beckman down. Instead, inspired by John Van Vleck’s teaching, Jones accepted a position at Harvard University. He spent almost fifty years there, teaching electronics. His own work for his first twenty years there revolved around magnetism, but he then took up optics.

At the end of the interview Jones discusses his insights into William Shockley and the deterioration of their relationship; the development of semiconductor electronics; his own theory of a "planar metaphor" giving rise to a host of technological development; the importance of crystal growth and the lesson of semiconductors, viz. have good material; the underappreciated importance of a systematic, if time-consuming, approach in science as evidenced by Bell Labs’ ten-year development of laser diodes. He describes how his reading of Leslie Berlin’s recent book about Robert Noyce has led him to renew acquaintanceships with some of the other early scientists at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. He concludes by reiterating that Shockley, at least "one of the most complicated" scientists of the time, made invaluable contributions to physics.


1951 A.B., Physics, University of California, Berkeley
1956 Ph.D., Physics, University of California, Berkeley

  Professional Experience

Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory

1956 - 1957

Senior Engineer

Harvard University

1957 - 1961

Assistant Professor of Applied Physics

Harvard University

1961 - 1964

Associate Professor of Applied Physics

Harvard University

1964 - 1982

Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics

Harvard University

1969 - 1971

Associate Dean, Division of Engineering and Applied Physics

Harvard University

1971 - 1972

Dean, Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences

Harvard University

1982 - present

Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Family background. Childhood in Oakland, California. Father’s occupation. Love of atomic and nuclear physics. Building an oscilloscope. School.

College Years 3

Attends University of California, Berkeley. Works in Walter Knight’s lab. Interested in nuclear magnetic resonance. Becoming interested in studying. Joy of research.

Graduate School Years 4

Employment situation in electronics after World War II. Attends graduate school at Berkeley. Carson Jeffries’s lab. Thesis on electron transport in a molecular afterglow.

Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory Years 6

Korean War’s effect on demand for electronics. Job offer from Bell Telephone Laboratories. Unusual recruitment effort by William Shockley. Shockley’s difficult personality. Four-layer diode. Silicon. Crystal growth. Scientists in Shockley lab. Stressful, competitive atmosphere in lab. Jones’s wish to return to main interest, electromagnetic theory. Arnold Beckman’s attempt to hire Jones.

Harvard University Years 29

"Decompression." Influence of John Van Vleck. Teaching electronics. Taking up optics. More insights into Shockley’s personality and lab management. Deterioration of Jones-Shockley relationship after Jones’s "defection."  Importance of crystal growth. Bell Labs’ contrasting approach to science: methodical, systematic. "Planar metaphor."  Development of semiconductor electronics. Renewing acquaintanceships with first scientists at Shockley.

Index 37

  About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

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