The Idea Factory

Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012, 422 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.


Bell Labs, as people involved in almost every area of engineering and physics though the 1990s knew, was the premier laboratory in the world.  The lists of inventions starts with the transistor and goes on to underwater cables, satellite communication, solar cells, lasers, fiber optics, cell phones, and more.  Fundamental work in solid-state physics was done there, as was the whole new research area of Information Theory.  Much of the book’s story is told through the people and their eccentricities liven the tale—Claude Shannon, who invented Information Theory, would ride the hallways on his unicycle while juggling. (One hears similar stories these days from the successful tech companies in Silicon Valley.) 

The important question, of course, is what made the “Labs” so productive.  One can glean many reasons, but the relative importance is not clear, at least to me.  Money was probably part of the reason.  Bell Labs existed to sustain the telephone system. The system was a monopoly owned by AT&T and produced a steady, but not spectacular, income.  A portion of the income supported Bell Labs, whose management in return aimed for the highest quality telephone service possible now and in the future.  Management, therefore, believed it could invest in projects or research that would not pay off for a long time.  (Once the monopoly was taken away the organization collapsed.) Technical people were offered nearly unlimited resources, not only the company of very smart colleagues but also equipment and supplies. The rapidly expanding telephone system presented a myriad of significant problems—challenges—on which the research and development could focus. The needs of the telephone system also created a psychic purpose in which staff could invest themselves. Both the building and the culture aimed to foster what is now called “cross-disciplinary” work.  The main building was organized around a long corridor—looking from either end it seemed to converge at infinity—so engineers walking by saw what others were doing. One of the heroes of the book, John R. Pierce, identified himself as an “instigator,” whose job was to suggest promising lines of research or to make connections between staff members.  Laboratory managers kept close relationships with Universities, which give the Labs an inside track on the best of the new graduate students.  Another aspect of the culture was the focus on creating excellent science or engineering.  A striking difference between those times and those engineers and the present is the absence of young entrepreneurs selling their company or going public for huge sums.  Staff really did seem to be working for the intellectual challenge. The only person in the book who goes off to start his own company is William Shockley, who played a lead role in the invention of the transistor.  Shockley left basically because he could not work with others, and his promising semiconductor company fell apart for the same reason. 

I recommend The Idea Factory to all sorts of readers.  The engineering and science is accessible and valid.  The people described are fascinating.  The technical achievements are still exciting. The implications for both public policy and management are profound.  It is fun to read and worthwhile.