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The Idea Factory

Book review: How Bell Labs conceived the modern world of iPads, Wi-Fi and satellites.

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(Photos: Bettmann/Corbis; Kayla Chobotiuk)

To understand our technological present, Bill Gates would take us back to where the age of modern communications began. “My first stop on any time-travel expedition,” Gates once said, “would be Bell Labs in December 1947.”

Bell Labs was the research and development wing of AT&T and, in those postwar years, the greatest centre for technological innovation in the world. That winter, two researchers, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, were fiddling with a thin slice of germanium. By carefully placing two gold points on the surface they found they could create a noticeable surge in power. Their supervisor, the brilliant but cantankerous physicist William Shockley, was simultaneously amazed by their finding and deeply jealous he hadn’t discovered it himself. He holed himself up in a hotel room in Chicago and emerged two days later with an improved version of their design. The collective creation was, everyone agreed, that rarest of inventions. It was “basically a new thing in the world.”

Bell Labs wavered over what to call this tiny device. Eventually they settled on a portmanteau of “transfer resistor.” And like that, the transistor—the basic building block of all the computerized gadgets that you and Bill Gates love—was born.

In his new book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin), Jon Gertner vividly tells the story of the transistor, as well as the dozens of other innovations that rolled out of Bell Labs. Over a fertile run in the middle of the 20th century, the Labs were responsible for a staggering array of new technology. They invented the vacuum tube and the laser, optical fibres and cellular technology. They produced the silicon solar cell. They created the Unix operating system and helped launch the first orbiting communications satellite—a large beach-ball-sized contraption that, on a warm evening in 1962, broadcast part of a live Cubs game to European viewers for the first time in history. Claude Shannon, a brilliant eccentric who could often be found riding his unicycle and juggling through the halls of Bell Labs, was the father of information theory itself, a revolutionary new way of looking at the world.

It’s not hyperbole to say, as Gertner does, that the future—that interconnected world of Wi-Fi networks and pocket-sized computers and satellite communication that we happen to call the present—was conceived and designed at Bell Labs.

Gertner, a New York Times Magazine writer and gifted storyteller, grew up just yards from the Bell Labs campus in Murray Hill, N.J. His in-depth history follows the intriguing characters at this hub of invention. At the centre of the story is Mervin Kelly, the researcher-turned-president of Bell Labs, who was determined to create a systemized approach to innovation. “To Kelly, inventing the future wasn’t just a matter of inventing things for the future,” Gertner writes. “It also entailed inventing ways to invent those things.”

Part of this approach involved physical proximity. The main campus of Bell Labs was designed so that researchers working on different projects would be forced to interact with one another as they went about their daily tasks. An engineer might have an office as well as a laboratory, but the two rooms would be in different wings, forcing him to walk through the corridors, running into chemists and physicists along the way. Kelly created a series of in-house lectures, quickly nicknamed “Kelly College,” where experts in their field could teach other Bell Labs employees about the latest research. The forward-thinking executive also encouraged his researchers to make time for their own passions, letting scientists pursue their idiosyncratic interests on the company clock.

What emerges from all this is a fascinating portrait of the process of institutional innovation itself. The invention of the transistor, for example, wasn’t simply a moment of personal genius from three brilliant scientists. It was the culmination of years of smaller innovations—the product of a corporate culture that prized interdisciplinary work. It was also invented in an organization sophisticated enough to find the best use for the device and then produce it not once but a million times. This is the true meaning of innovation—not just a discovery or an invention but, in Kelly’s words, “the lengthy and wholesale transformation of an idea into a technological product (or process) meant for widespread practical use.”

Today, decades after the breathtaking string of innovations at Bell Labs, much of their formula has been broadly adopted by the corporate world. A belief in the importance of physical proximity and forcing interactions has been embraced by executives like Steve Jobs who, as the owner of Pixar in the ’80s, famously decided that all the bathrooms in the studio would be located in the vast central atrium. Companies like 3M and Google have institutionalized the Bell Labs tradition of allowing its researchers to follow their own interests on company time.

Other aspects of this “idea factory,” however, seem hopelessly antiquated. Bell Labs was backed by AT&T, the largest monopoly in the world, which allowed them to spend millions of dollars on research that might never prove profitable—a situation unimaginable for many of today’s companies.

Since the 1970s, a new model for innovation has grown, one that doesn’t require a huge corporate headquarters filled with scientists on unicycles and armies of physicists. When we think of innovation today we think of a programmer in Silicon Valley or a kid at Harvard coming up with an idea and searching out a venture capitalist to fund it. Still, Gertner’s book is a useful reminder that, while small tech entrepreneurs fighting it out in the open market have created wonderful breakthroughs, the truly revolutionary leaps have happened when scientists and dreamers are given enough freedom to pursue ambitious, seemingly impossible goals.