Adcock, Willis Alfred (1922–2003)

By: Russell Stites

Type: Biography

Published: November 6, 2020

Updated: May 19, 2021


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Willis Alfred Adcock, chemist and engineer with Texas Instruments, contributed to the invention of the silicon transistor and the integrated circuit. He was born on November 25, 1922, to William Arthur Adcock and Luella (White) Adcock in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada. He attended grade school in Saint-Georges-de-Clarenceville, Quebec, near the U.S.-Canadian border. Because Clarenceville had no secondary school, Adcock, at age fourteen in 1936, went to stay with his maternal uncle in nearby Champagne, New York, so that he could attend high school. His principal at Champagne High School was a graduate of Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and recommended the college to Adcock. Adcock graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in 1943. While at Hobart, he met Eleanor Mary Goller. She was a student at William Smith College, the women’s college which occupies a shared campus with the men’s Hobart College. The two married in 1943. They had four children—William, Robert, Edward, and Margaret.

In 1944 Adcock enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the Clinton Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The facility was the main production installation for the Manhattan Project. There, Adcock was a junior member of the team that developed the atomic bomb. Because he was not a U. S. citizen, there was some question as to whether he could receive security clearance to work on the project. He was permitted to remain and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen later that year. He was discharged in 1946.

Adcock then attended Brown University and received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1948. On the recommendation of the head of his chemistry department, Adcock took a job with the Stanolind Oil and Gas Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was part of a project to develop a method to convert natural gas into gasoline for easier transportation. The project was abandoned after natural gas pipelines connected Stanolind to markets on the East Coast and removed the need for such a process.

Adcock joined Texas Instruments (TI) in early 1953, after Gordon Teal, a fellow Brown alum, reached out to him with an offer to work on semiconductors. Under Teal’s direction, Adcock headed a research team tasked with growing a silicon crystal structure suitable for use in a transistor. They succeeded and developed the company’s first silicon transistors in April 1954. At the time, transistors were made using germanium and were unreliable at elevated temperatures and could not function at all above around 75°C (167° F). Silicon transistors could operate at temperatures up to 150°C (302° F), allowing them to perform in the extreme conditions demanded by military and space programs. They quickly became the industry standard. Teal and Adcock were not the first to build a successful silicon transistor. Bell Labs had quietly developed their own silicon transistors in January 1954. However, they did not announce their innovation or immediately move forward with production, and this delay allowed TI to dominate the market.

Adcock was responsible for hiring the engineer Jack Kilby to TI in May 1958. In July 1958 Kilby came to Adcock with plans for a circuit built directly into a semi-conductor base, eliminating the need to mount circuit components on different material. Kilby’s integrated circuit was a revolution in microminiaturization. TI was already involved in microminiaturization research for the U.S. Army, but Kilby thought that the army-backed method—micromodules—was a dead end. Adcock, although somewhat skeptical at first, supported Kilby’s proposal and diverted resources to Kilby’s research. Kilby built the first integrated circuit on September 12, 1958.

From 1961 to 1962 Adcock served as the chair of the Institute of Radio Engineers Professional Group on Electron Devices, which would develop into the IEEE Electron Devices Society. In 1964 Adcock left TI to work at Sperry Semiconductor, a division of the Sperry-Rand Corporation, in Norwalk, Connecticut. He returned to TI the following year as manager of advanced planning and technical development. On February 21, 1970, his wife Eleanor died of an aneurysm. Adcock began a relationship with Sara Whiddon, a widow who, like him, was an active member of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas. Her husband had died in the crash of Braniff Flight 352 in 1968. The two married on December 28, 1970. Together they attended Wednesday night classes at Southern Methodist University, where Adcock earned a master of liberal arts degree in 1975.

At TI, Adcock worked on charge-coupled devices (CCDs), a major component in digital imaging. In 1976 and 1977 he filed several patents relating to digital photography, but TI did not develop its own digital cameras. He was promoted to vice president of corporate staff in 1982. Due to a rule requiring managers to retire at age sixty-five, Adcock would have been obliged to retire in 1987. He hoped to secure a professorship at Southern Methodist University after his retirement and began applying for the position. However, one of his references at the University of Texas offered him a professorship and the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering at UT instead. Taking a position in UT’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, Adcock retired from TI a year early and moved to Austin with his wife in 1986. He helped establish and served as the founding director of a SEMATECH research center at UT. In 1993 he retired from teaching as chair professor emeritus.

In 1974 Adcock was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. He was awarded an honorary doctor of science from Hobart in 1989. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Prior to his death on December 16, 2003, Adcock was working on developing a gyroscopic torque converter. He died in Austin and was buried at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd Columbarium there. Jack Kilby was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Austin American-Statesman, December 19, 2003. Sanjay Banerjee, Earl Swartzlander and David Beer, “Willis Alfred Adcock 1922–2003,” Memorial Tributes, Volume 12 (2008) National Academy of Engineering of the Unites States of America, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. (https://www.nap.edu/read/12473/chapter/2), accessed October 10, 2020.  Michael Riordan, “The Lost History of the Transistor,” IEEE Spectrum, April 30, 2004 (https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/silicon-revolution/the-lost-history-of-the-transistor), accessed October 15, 2020. “Switching to Silicon,” Computer History Museum (https://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/digital-logic/12/274), accessed October 14, 2020. “Willis Adcock: An Interview Conducted by David Morton,” IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., July 27, 2000, Engineering and Technology History Wiki (https://ethw.org/Oral-History:Willis_Adcock), accessed October 10, 2020.

Categories:

  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Pioneers
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Petroleum Engineers
  • Science
  • Innovations and Inventions
  • Inventors
  • Scientists and Researchers

Time Periods:

  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • Central Texas
  • Austin
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Russell Stites, “Adcock, Willis Alfred,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 21, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/adcock-willis-alfred.

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November 6, 2020
May 19, 2021

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