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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

A sweeping, atmospheric history of Bell Labs that highlights its unparalleled role as an incubator of innovation and birthplace of the century's most influential technologies.

Bell Laboratories, which thrived from the 1920s to the 1980s, was the most innovative and productive institution of the twentieth century. Long before America's brightest scientific minds began migrating west to Silicon Valley, they flocked to this sylvan campus in the New Jersey suburbs built and funded by AT&T. At its peak, Bell Labs employed nearly fifteen thousand people, twelve hundred of whom had PhDs. Thirteen would go on to win Nobel prizes. It was a citadel of science and scholarship as well as a hotbed of creative thinking. It was, in effect, a factory of ideas whose workings have remained largely hidden until now.

"New York Times Magazine" writer Jon Gertner unveils the unique magic of Bell Labs through the eyes and actions of its scientists. These ingenious, often eccentric men would become revolutionaries, and sometimes legends, whether for inventing radio astronomy in their spare time (and on the company's dime), riding unicycles through the corridors, or pioneering the principles that propel today's technology. In these pages, we learn how radar came to be, and lasers, transistors, satellites, mobile phones, and much more.

Even more important, Gertner reveals the forces that set off this explosion of creativity. Bell Labs combined the best aspects of the academic and corporate worlds, hiring the brightest and usually the youngest minds, creating a culture and even an architecture that forced employees in different fields to work together, in virtually complete intellectual freedom, with little pressure to create moneymaking innovations. In Gertner's portrait, we come to understand why both researchers and business leaders look to Bell Labs as a model and long to incorporate its magic into their own work.

Written with a novelist's gift for pacing and an ability to convey the thrill of innovation, "The Idea Factory" yields a revelatory take on the business of invention. What are the principles of innovation? How do new technology and new ideas begin? Are some environments more favorable than others? How should they be structured, and how should they be governed? Can strokes of genius be accelerated, replicated, standardized? The history of Bell Labs provides crucial answers that can and should be applied today by anyone who wants to understand where good ideas come from.


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Review

“[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  160 reviews
139 of 146 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|Amazon 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.
31 of 32 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.
40 of 44 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.
49 of 62 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|Amazon 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.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed Jan. 20 2013
By truthbetold - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I spent most of my technical career at Bell labs between the late sixties until the mid-nineties. Over half of that time I worked in the fundamental research area and the other half a mixture of government contract work and administrative work. Virtually all the people detailed in this book who were still around when I started were known to me and one or two I at least crossed paths with personally. In particular, I began my career working directly for Bill Pfann for a number of years, a wonderful man and brilliant materials scientist, in further adapting his Nobel-quality work ( unfortunately there is no Nobel prize for Materials Research!) to mixed metallic as well as organic compounds. It is no exaggeration to say that if it were not for Pfann's breakthroughs in purifying semiconductors and developing techniques for accurate levels of doping, no transistor would ever have gone past the laboratory experimental phase.

To the extent that the author traces the Lab's beginnings and the dozen or so major players both in their scientific and engineering contributions as well as their later equally valuable administrative achievements it is an excellent, detailed ( often a bit more detail than the reader really needs to have) and well-researched history. The shortcoming is that the author concentrates so extensively (essentially exclusively) on these dozen or so "superstars" he has left no time or space for even a fair sampling of many of the "second-tier" scientists and engineers, those whose brilliant work never got Nobel Prize headlines but without whose contributions no "superstar" discoveries would have progressed beyond initial theoretical curiosities. My own work represented a very, very modest level of achievement compared to the many outstanding people I had the privilege and pleasure to work with. I missed not reading something about the many people whose exciting work all around me made coming to work every day a bright prospect.

For those who are content with the big picture, this is the book to read. But for those of us who labored alongside the many inspired, unsung colleagues we shared that environment with, and for those who understand that scientific and technical achievment is impossible without the essential and dedicated support and ideas of the many who work with, and for, the select few, the full story of the Bell Labs culture and camaraderie has yet to be written.

May I say to all those folks - thanks guys -it was a pleasure.
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