Review: The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Summary: An account of the history of Bell Labs, the inventions and innovations they produced, and the confluence of people, resources, and the growth of the telecommunications revolution that drove it all.

The transistor. Digitized information. The laser. Microwave communications. The first communication satellite. Cellular technology. Fiber optic cable. All of these are the components of the digital telecommunications revolution we have witnessed over the last thirty years. All of these trace their origins back to one organization, Bell Labs. And the application of these technological breakthroughs ultimately contributed to the breakup of AT&T’s monopoly over telecommunications, and eventually turned the labs into a shadow of its former self.

Jon Gertner traces this history interweaving an account of the people, the organization, the innovations, and the factors the fueled this incredible flourishing of research. It all begins with AT&T’s vision of universal connectivity that fueled a research enterprise that relentless pursued solutions to the problems associated with realizing that vision. Significantly, it had to do with the virtual monopoly AT&T enjoyed until the 1980s and the huge sums of money from those monthly phone bills that provided a reliable source of research funding that allowed researchers the luxury of devoting years to studying, theorizing, experimenting, and perfecting new technologies.

Like many great organizations, Bell Labs enjoyed great leadership under the direction of Mervyn Kelly, one of the key figures profiled in this work. Kelly, in turn gathered around him an incredible array of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and engineers and created an ethos that unleashed an incredible period of creativity and innovation from the end of World War II up into the 1960’s. Critical to this ethos was bringing these people to work side by side and to have informal access to one another as they worked on a variety of problems.

Gertner introduces us to this brilliant cast of scientists as he chronicles their inventions. We meet William Shockley and the team of John Bardeen and Walter Brattain who worked with him to invent the transistor. This was Shockley’s golden hour, doing work that would lead to a Nobel Prize. Later he leaves to form a failed company in Silicon Valley, attracting the talent that would make the Valley what it is today. He ends his life spouting unscientific views about race.

Claude Shannon develops the foundations of information theory that contribute to the digital revolution while riding about the labs on a unicycle, juggling, and inventing an array of toys and machines like an electronic mouse that can learn to navigate a maze. John Pierce was known as “the instigator,” for his capacity to envision new solutions, launch efforts to innovate and then restlessly move on. One of those was the first communications satellite, Telstar, fueled by solar cells also developed at Bell Labs. Charles H. Townes develops the first lasers, whose worked was added to those who envisioned using light to transmit huge volumes of information and those who created the pure glass cables that became fiber-optic technology to carry these transmissions. Doug Ring and his team at Holmdel Labs wrote papers and later set up transmission towers around the New Jersey countryside, developing cellular technology.

There are places, beginning with the West Street labs, where Kelly, and most of the others began their careers, Kelly in the vacuum tube lab. There is the Murray Hill campus in New Jersey where many of the technological innovations were developed. Most interesting of all was the “turkey shed” building at the Holmdel Labs where much of the work on microwave and cellular communication occurred. Eventually this quirky building was replace with an Eero Saarinen designed building, a rectangular black box, now sitting abandoned.

What is left of Bell Labs today is an industrial lab, serving more the needs of the moment than inventing the technology of the future. Gertner traces the demise of the great research lab to the very technology they developed, licensed to competitors at low prices as the cost of maintaining the AT& T monopoly for many years, until the competitors broke up the empire that fueled and funded this research enterprise.

The intriguing question that we are left with is whether there could be another “Bell Labs?” The concept of an enterprise that can afford to bring together a talented cadre of scientists, give them interesting problems and the time and resources to pursue them seems a luxury in this era of scarce research funding. Gertner considers the possibilities of something like this coming together around biomedical technology, big data, or energy research. The casual contact and collaboration of people across disciplines in a place like Bell Labs seems a far cry from our often siloed universities. But who can afford to create such an entity? Microsoft? Apple? Google? What is also clear, though, from this account was the pivotal role Mervyn Kelly played in recognizing and deploying incredibly intelligent and talented people to pursue challenging questions. There was a human factor that money and space alone cannot replace.

Whether such an enterprise, perhaps in a new configuration could develop is an interesting question. I wonder if today, it will be a network of enterprises and researchers working on related questions. Whatever is the case, The Idea Factory might be required reading for understanding the milieu in which innovation thrives.


One thought on “Review: The Idea Factory

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2016 | Bob on Books

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