The Stack

Book Review: 'The Idea Factory,' by Jon Gertner


"Better, or cheaper, or both"—how Bell Labs President Mervin Kelly defined innovation

Illustration by Nick Edwards

"Better, or cheaper, or both"—how Bell Labs President Mervin Kelly defined innovation

Editor's Rating: Stars_9

Can Bell Labs, maker of America's 20th century, be replicated in the 21st?

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

By Jon Gertner
The Penguin Press; 432pp; $29.95

 

The greatest invention of the Information Age began with a betrayal. Around Christmas 1947, physicist William Shockley holed himself up in a Chicago hotel room. He feverishly filled pages he would later glue into his official notebook at Bell Laboratories, then the most important innovation hub in the U.S. The pages contained the design for something called a junction transistor—a grain-sized sandwich of silicon and germanium that would miniaturize the circuitry in telephone systems, radios, and televisions, and ultimately pave the way for computers. Shockley secretly planned to upstage his teammates at the lab, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, who had already invented a more primitive transistor but had shown it only to a small group of directors. At a Bell conference a month later, Shockley leapt out of his seat and announced his invention. Bardeen and Brattain sat in the audience, dumbfounded.

The strained collaboration would pass into the techie lore of Bell Labs’ Golden Age, and it’s one of the incidents chronicled in The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner’s history of the labs. Gertner, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and an editor at Fast Company, was raised in a New Jersey suburb beside Bell’s headquarters in Murray Hill. As a teenager, he lurked among its vast fields and buildings in awe of the hallowed site where great things had once been invented, but no longer were.

From 1925 to 1980, the lab developed into a cornerstone of the American Century—a focal point of the national obsession with innovation. Bright young men (and some women) from Midwestern farm towns came there to imagine—and then invent—the future. They saw that AT&T’s (T) information network would wrap the world like “the biological systems of a man’s brain and nervous system,” as Mervin Kelly, the lab’s president during the 1950s, predicted.

Photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images (Shannon); AP Photo (Shockley); Keystone/Getty Images (Bardeen)

The labs grew out of AT&T’s effort before World War I to connect New York to San Francisco by telephone lines. From there, Bell labs went on to invent radar, lasers, fiber optics, mobile phones, and satellite communications, and produced 13 Nobel prize winners. “My first stop on any time-travel expedition would be Bell Labs in December 1947,” Bill Gates once said.

During Bell Labs’ heyday, 12,000 scientists worked on every aspect of telecommunications, from making woodpecker-proof telephone poles to picking up radio static caused by the Big Bang. A handful of tireless thinkers, called the Young Turks, dominated the lab’s innovation engine. They included Shockley and also Claude Shannon, a thin young man whose silence barely masked his eccentricity. Between juggling and unicycle rides down the lab’s corridors, Shannon trail-blazed artificial intelligence and fathered “communication theory,” conceiving of sound and images as bits of data that could be transferred electronically. The Turks also included William Baker, the president of the labs from 1973 to 1979 who led a double life working for the U.S. government on Cold War technology, and John Pierce, a provocateur whose nose for the Next Big Thing instigated the invention of satellite and mobile communications.

AT&T and its sister, Western Electric, held a government-endorsed monopoly from 1921 to 1982. Monthly phone payments from U.S. households financed projects with 30-year time frames (many of today’s tech companies can’t even imagine lasting that long). When AT&T separated into the Baby Bells in 1980, the labs began to implode. Contemporary remorse underlies Gertner’s exploration of Bell Labs, as does anxiety over whether we’ve surrendered our role as the world’s technology innovator if we’ve already given up a third of our manufacturing to other countries in the last decade. At its core, the book asks: Can we build an American Idea Factory for the 21st century? The answer is, maybe—but it won’t be like Bell Labs.

Today’s tech companies copy Bell’s flat organizational structure. The open doors and long corridors in the H-shaped Murray Hill building were meant to encourage scientists from different fields to rub shoulders. “Google (GOOG) has even picked up on an old Bell Labs tradition,” writes Gertner. “It encourages workers to spend part of their time—up to 20 percent—on a project that captures their interest.” But former Bell executives say the labs can’t be emulated. “We had these people who were bigger than life back then. And we don’t seem to have them anymore,” Bob Lucky, a onetime Bell Labs engineer, tells Gertner.

Larger than life or not, can engineers today match Bell Labs’ achievement? The answer might be found in the drama of Shockley, Brattain, and Bardeen. In legend they were godlike, but the betrayal reveals their flawed humanity. The three would share a Nobel prize for the transistor in 1956 and would never collaborate on another project. Bardeen would win a second Nobel for his work in superconductors in 1972. And while Shockley was reviled for the ideas he developed on eugenics after leaving Bell Labs, his future employees at his Palo Alto (Calif.) startup would go on to form Intel (INTC) and establish Silicon Valley. The Valley’s products logically succeeded the innovation begun at Bell. Sadly, the decades-long schedules for developing new technology—Bell’s greatest luxury and value—are firmly a thing of the past.

Grushkin is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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