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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation [Hardcover]

Jon Gertner
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 20 2012

The definitive history of America’s greatest incubator of innovation, the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies, including the integrated circuit, the communications satellite and the cell phone.

From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs—officially, the research and development wing of AT&T—was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, it’s hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn’t been touched by Bell Labs.

Why did so many transformative ideas come from Bell Labs?  In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century’s most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men—Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker—who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Their job was to research and develop the future of communications.  Small-town boys, childhood hobbyists, oddballs: they give the lie to the idea that Bell Labs was a grim cathedral of top-down command and control.

Gertner brings to life the powerful alchemy of the forces at work behind Bell Labs inventions, teasing out the intersections between science, business, and society. He distills the lessons that abide: how to recruit and nurture young talent; how to organize and lead fractious employees; how to find solutions to the most stubbornly vexing problems; how to transform a scientific discovery into a marketable product, then make it even better, cheaper, or both. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.

The Idea Factory is the story of the origins of modern communications and the beginnings of the information age—a deeply human story of extraordinary men who were given extraordinary means—time, space, funds, and access to one another—and edged the world into a new dimension.

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“[F]illed with colorful characters and inspiring lessons...The Idea Factory explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation?”—Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review



“Riveting… Mr. Gertner’s portraits of Kelly and the cadre of talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times




“One of the best innovation-focused books I've read: It's a wide-ranging, detailed, and deeply fascinating look at the New Jersey lab which has been churning out useful discoveries since the early 1900s.”—The Boston Globe



“Compelling… Gertner's book offers fascinating evidence for those seeking to understand how a society should best invest its research resources.”—The Wall Street Journal



“[F]ascinating history…the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.”—Slate Book Review



“[A]n expansive new history…does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.”—Wired.com



“Gertner provides a view of American research and development that will take engineers, scientists, and managers back to the golden age of invention in the U.S…. Gertner follows these odd and brilliant thinkers to the end of Bell Labs in the 1980s and to their own ends, providing readers with insight into management, creativity, and engineering that remain applicable today.”—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)



"Remarkably well researched, lucidly written."—The Seattle Times



“Gertner handles the experimentation descriptions with elegance and clarity, while proving even more engaging with his profiles of leading Bell lights.”—Newark Star Ledger



"Gertner reveals the complicated humanity at work behind the scenes and provides unprecedented insight on some of history's most important scientific and technological advances. Packed with anecdotes and trivia and written in clear and compelling prose, this story of a cutting-edge and astonishingly robust intellectual era—and one not without its controversies and treachery—is immensely enjoyable.”—Kirkus

About the Author

Jon Gertner grew up in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey—just a few hundred yards away from Bell Labs. He has been a writer for the New York Times Magazine since 2004 and is currently an editor at Fast Company magazine. He lives in New Jersey, with his wife and two children.

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By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  175 reviews
144 of 151 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life and times of a great American institution March 15 2012
By A. Jogalekar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
During its fifty odd years of existence, Bell Labs was the most productive scientific laboratory on the planet. It won seven Nobel Prizes, contributed innumerable practical ideas underlying our modern way of life and, whether by accident or design, also managed to make some spectacular basic scientific discoveries that expanded our understanding of the universe. How did it possibly accomplish all this? In this authoritative and intensely engaging book, Jon Gertner tells us exactly how.

Gertner's book about this great American institution excels in three ways. Firstly, it describes in detail the genesis of what was then an unlikely research institution. Until then most communication related work was considered to be squarely within the domain of engineering. Bell Labs arose from a need to improve communications technology pioneered by its parent organization AT&T. But the real stroke of genius was to realize the value that basic scientists - mainly physicists and chemists - could bring to this endeavor along with engineers. This was largely the vision of two men - Frank Jewett and Mervin Kelly. Jewett who was the first president of Bell Labs had the foresight to recruit promising young physicists who were proteges of his friend Robert Millikan, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and president of Caltech. Kelly in turn was Millikan's student and was probably the most important person in the history of the laboratory. It was Kelly who hired the first brilliant breed of physicists and engineers including William Shockley, Walter Brittain, Jim Fisk and Charles Townes and who would set the agenda for future famous discoveries. During World War II Bell gained a reputation for taking on challenging military projects like radar; at the end of the war it handled almost a thousand of these. The war made the benefits of supporting basic science clear. It was Kelly again who realized that the future of innovation lay in electronics. To this end he moved Bell from its initial location in New York City to an expansive wooded field in New Jersey near Murray Hill and recruited even more brilliant physicists, chemists and engineers. This added further fuel to the fire of innovation started in the 1930s, and from then on the laboratory never looked back.

Secondly, Gertner gives a terrific account of the people who populated the buildings in Murray Hill and their discoveries which immortalized the laboratory. Kelly instituted a policy of hiring only the best minds, and it did not matter whether these were drawn from industry, academia or the government. In some cases he would go to great lengths to snare a particularly valuable scientist, offering lucrative financial incentives along with unprecedented freedom to explore ideas. This led to a string of extraordinary discoveries which Gertner describes in rich and accessible detail. One feature of the book that stands out is Gertner's efforts in describing the actual science instead of skimming over it; for instance he pays due attention to the revolution in materials chemistry that was necessary for designing semiconductor devices. The sheer number of important things Bell scientists discovered or invented beggars belief; even a limited but diverse sampling includes the first transatlantic cable, transistors, UNIX, C++, photovoltaic cells, error-corrected communication, charged-coupled devices and statistical process control that now forms the basis of the six-sigma movement. The scientists were a fascinating, diverse lot and Gertner brings a novelist's eye in describing them. There was Bill Shockley, the undoubtedly brilliant, troubled, irascible physicist whose sin of competing against his subordinates led to his alienation at the lab. Gertner provides a fast-paced account of those heady days in 1947 when John Bardeen, Brittain and Shockley invented the transistor, the truly world-changing invention that is Bell Labs's greatest claim to fame. Then there was Claude Shannon, the quiet, eccentric genius who rode his unicycle around the halls and invented information theory which essentially underlies the entire modern digital world. Described also are Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, whose work with an antenna that was part of the first communications satellite - also built by Bell - led to momentous evidence supporting the Big Bang. The influence of the laboratory was so formative that even the people who left Bell Labs later went on to greatness; several of these such as future energy secretary Steven Chu joined elite academic institutions and won Nobel Prizes (Bardeen won two). It's quite clear that the cast of characters that passed through the institution will probably never again be concentrated in one place.

But perhaps the most valuable part of the book deals not with the great scientific personalities or their discoveries but with the reasons that made Bell tick. When Kelly moved the lab to Murray Hill, he designed its physical space in ways that would have deep repercussions for productive thought and invention. Most crucially, he interspersed the basic and applied scientists together without any separation. That way even the purest of mathematicians was forced to interact with and learn from the most hands-on engineer. This led to an exceptional cross-fertilization of ideas, an early precursor of what we call multidisciplinary research. Labs and offices were divided by soundproof steel partitions that could be moved to expand and rearrange working spaces. The labs were all lined along a very long, seven-hundred foot corridor where everybody worked with their doors open. This physical layout ensured that when a scientist or engineer walked to the cafeteria, he or she would "pick up ideas like a magnet picks up iron filings". Other rules only fed the idea factory. For instance you were not supposed to turn away a subordinate if he came to ask you for advice. This led to the greenest of recruits learning at the feet of masters like Bardeen or Shannon. Most importantly, you were free to pursue any idea or research project that you wanted, free to ask anyone for advice, free to be led where the evidence pointed. Of course this extraordinary freedom was made possible by the immense profits generated by the monopolistic AT&T, but the heart of the matter is that Bell's founders recognized the importance of focusing on long-term goals rather than short-term profits. They did this by gathering bright minds under one roof and giving them the freedom and time to pursue their ideas. And as history makes clear, this policy led not only to fundamental discoveries but to practical inventions greatly benefiting humanity. Perhaps some of today's profitable companies like Google can lift a page from AT&T and channel more of their profits into basic, broadly defined, curiosity-driven research.

Gertner's highly readable book leaves us with a key message. As America struggles to stay competitive in science and technology, Bell Labs still provides the best example of what productive industrial research can accomplish. There are many lessons that modern organizations can learn from it. One interesting lesson arising from the cohabitation of research and manufacturing under the same roof is that it might not be healthy beyond a point to isolate one from the other, a caveat that bears directly on current offshoring policies. It is important to have people involved in all aspects of R&D talking to each other. But the greatest message of all from the story of this remarkable institution is simple and should not be lost in this era of short-term profits, layoffs and declining investment in fundamental research: the best way to generate ideas still is to hire the best minds, put them all in one place and give them the freedom, time and money to explore, think and innovate. You will be surprised how much long-term benefit you get from that policy. As they say, mighty trees from little acorns grow, and it's imperative to nurture those little seeds.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scientists, tinkerers, managers, and HR professionals will find plenty of inspiration here March 19 2012
By Ishaan Dang - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Fast Company editor Gertner traces the history of Bell Labs through more than five decades of brilliant thinking and innovation. From the transistor to lasers to satellites and cellular technology, Bell Labs and its scientists invented machines and techniques that were consistently prescient, and ultimately presaged all of modern communications. Housed first in New York City and then on a sprawling campus in New Jersey, Bell Labs became a haven for creative and technical minds due to a unique culture of encouraged interdisciplinary research, (mostly) friendly competition and inspired leadership. Tremendously complex ideas (information theory) and intensely experimental accomplishments (fiber optics) were possible in part because of the unrivaled freedom, time and funding Bell Labs provided. In addition, pressing social, political and economic issues provided necessary infrastructures for advances in engineering and mechanics. The author describes the atmosphere as welcoming creativity rather than insisting on rigid development; intellectually, there was an indistinct line between art and science. By tracing the history of Bell Labs through the biographies of several of its founding thinkers, including Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley and Claude Shannon, Gertner reveals the complicated humanity at work behind the scenes and provides unprecedented insight on some of history's most important scientific and technological advances. Packed with anecdotes and trivia and written in clear and compelling prose, this story of a cutting-edge and astonishingly robust intellectual era--and one not without its controversies and treachery--is immensely enjoyable.
41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book About an Amazing Place and Time March 15 2012
By Book Fanatic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. It's a history/biography of some of the most important innovations and people who came out of Bell Labs during its peak in the middle to latter part of the 20th Century. Gertner does a good job of story telling and I found the book fascinating and a little sad at the same time. It is not likely something like this will be repeated again.

If you are looking for self-help books on how to create or innovate, you won't find it here. This is a history of the labs and its people. Gertner does describe what he thinks contributes to great ideas in this book from a broad historical perspective and how it came together at Bell Labs.

If you like biographies and history or even just reading about scientific and technological achievement, I think you will love this book. It's 360 pages long and tells a great story. It's hard to believe how much our current electronic world owes to Bell Labs. These were game changing ideas and inventions, not just incremental achievements like one finds with the latest new and improved version of a device these days.

The book description above on Amazon does an excellent job of describing what is inside this book. I highly recommend you give that description and the book itself a read.
51 of 65 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing April 22 2012
By Bob Metzler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From the description, I had expected more. Bell Labs was the great R&D organization for many decades and I thought that knowing more details and stories about them would be fun since my career was in technology. The author concentrates more on the managers than the scientists and engineers & that makes pretty dry reading. Also, the author is clearly not a technical person and while he doesn't get the technology descriptions exactly wrong, they're not exactly right, either. I finally bailed out with a couple of chapters still to go.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Popular History March 27 2012
By Tech Historian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a great beginning for someone trying to understand the history of the preeminent research lab of the 20th century. It tells the story of the lab by following the most important innovations and inventors. And when it does that it does well.

Where the book falls down when it requires a historian not a magazine writer. During the cold war good number of Bell Labs inventions were funded and at times cover stories, for intelligence agency projects (i.e. the Echo balloon, the TWT, Baker Report, ABM systems, etc.) Because communication research was a great cover for Electronic and Signals Intelligence as well as cryptography, Bell Labs researchers and executives were integral part of the CIA/NSA infrastructure. Not understanding how tightly integrated their contributions were miss a key part of what the labs did. Bell Labs wasn't just the phone companies research center.

Finally, when trying to make sense of it all, the last chapter simply rambles. Basic research as was done in Bell Labs doesn't occur in startups. And it's comparison falls flat. Instead, not even mentioned is that U.S. government funding of basic research is the envy of the world. The National Science Foundation funds $6 billion/year of basic research. Add to that the basic medical research of the National Institute of Health, and the other research dollars from the Department of Energy and you get a country spending 10's of billions on basic research. We've evolved a system where the government funds basic research and risk capital (i.e. venture capital in Silicon Valley) doing applied engineering. Comparing that to the Bell Labs model would have been a great chapter to conclude with.

Still, even with these flaws I learned a lot. A great edition to my technical history shelf and kudos to the author.
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