The Idea Factory: A book review by Bob Morris

Idea FactoryThe Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Jon Gertner
Penguin Books (2012)

How and why Bell Labs was once the most innovative scientific (and perhaps most commercial) organization in the world

As I began to read this book, I was reminded of the approach that Frank Moss takes in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives. Both he and Jon Gertner provide a wealth of historical information about the given enterprise while focusing on its leadership, its major contributions, and the significance of those contributions. A brief history of the MIT Media Lab and of Bell Laboratories can be obtained from Wikipedia. I suggest that the former be checked out before reading Moss’s book and the latter before reading Gertner’s.

The most productive years during the history of Bell Telephone Laboratories were between the lkate-1930s and the mid-70s, a period during which Bell Labs was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. According to Gertner, “It was arguably among the world’s most important commercial organizations as well, with countless entrepreneurs building their businesses upon the Labs foundational inventions, which were often shared for a modest fee.”

Its innovation breakthroughs include radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories prior to the year of the award: Clinton J. Davisson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for demonstrating the wave nature of matter (1937); John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley received the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the first transistors (1956); Philip W. Anderson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing an improved understanding of the electronic structure of glass and magnetic materials (1977); Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. Penzias and Wilson were cited for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, a nearly uniform glow that fills the Universe in the microwave band of the radio spectrum (1978); Steven Chu shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light (1997); Horst Stormer, Robert Laughlin, and Daniel Tsui, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery and explanation of the fractional quantum Hall effect (1998); and Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith shared the Nobel Prize in Physics together with Charles K. Kao. Boyle and Smith were cited for the invention of charge-coupled device (CCD) semiconductor imaging sensors (2009).

These are among the subjects of greatest to me:

o World War Two and Bells Labs (Pages 50-74)
o Patents for the transistor (97-100)
o Information Theory and Claude Shannon’s contributions (128-130 and 185-186)
o Individual Genius versus Collaboration issues (133-135)
o Claude Shannon and computers (136-144)
o Military work of Mervin Kelly
o Transatlantic telephone cable project (175-180 and 183-184)
o The Traveling Wave Tube project (198-201 and 207-208)
o New York World’s Fair and John Pierce’s involvement (228-231)
o MCI and the Bell System (271-274)
o Cellular telephones (279-283 and 286-297)

The best business books are research-driven and that is certainly true of this one. Gertner provides an abundant “Endnotes and Amplifications” section (Pages 367-400) and five additional pages of “Sources.” I am among those who are non-scientists and lacking any expertise in the field of electronics. Although discussing some of the most complicated creations and innovations in human history, Gertner never “dumbs down” the material while skillfully offering accurate and sufficient explanations of what does what as well as how and why.

Before concluding his brilliant book, he discusses a very different model for innovation that arose in the late-1970s as a new generation entrepreneurs demonstrated that new and better ideas need not have the resources of a large corporation to have a wide and deep, what Clay Christensen would characterize as a “disruptive” global impact. Bell Labs contributed to this transition from one model to another with its development of transistors, lasers, the Unix operating system, and the C and the C++ programming languages.

But the Silicon Valley process that Eugene Kleiner and others helped to establish “was a different innovation model from Bell Labs. It was not a factory of ideas; it was a geography of ideas. It was not one concentrated and powerful machine; it was the meshing of many interlocking small parts grouped physically near one another so as to make an equally powerful machine. The Valley model, in fact, was soon so productive that it became a topic of study for sociologists and business pr0ofessors. They soon bestowed upon the area the title of an “information hub.”

Jon Gartner allows John Pierce the final word in the book and I now do so as this brief commentary concludes: “I am afraid that there will be little tangible left [of Bell Labs] in a later age to remind our heirs that we were man, rather than cogs in a machine.” My hope is this book and others to follow will serve as reminders of what once was so very special, as was King Arthur about his realm:

“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.”

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