The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner

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In light of my last post on the Anthropology of Innovation, it was apropos that I was just finishing The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner, a history of Bell Labs and its impact on 20th century innovation. I actually also saw Gertner at the Computer History Museum in March, but had to wait a few months for the book to get through the hold queue at the library.

The book itself is a well-told story of the creation of Bell Labs and its rise to pre-eminence, mostly focusing on the 1930s to the 1950s. Bell Labs started off as just an R&D lab for AT&T, developing technology and materials to better enable phone calls. But in the 1930s, the director started to expand its mandate by hiring physicists and chemists to do basic research. During World War II, the lab was essential to the war effort, contributing to radar among other projects, and after the war, they were given the freedom to work on whatever they wanted. This led to the invention of the transistor in 1947, but also the conception of information theory by Claude Shannon in 1948 – two amazing leaps forward in how we think about the world.

The most interesting part of the book to me was how Mervin Kelly engineered a culture of innovation at Bell Labs that will probably never be rivaled. The idea that an industry lab would do research leading to thirteen Nobel Prizes is inconceivable today. To be fair, AT&T had a government-granted monopoly, so they could do research that wouldn’t pay off for 20 years, and know that they would still be in business to benefit. And to keep on earning that monopoly, they had to demonstrate that their research was contributing to the basic good of humanity – I was surprised to learn that they were required to license out all of their innovations for low cost, including the transistor. So that combination of monopoly-protected resources and a requirement to do good was a key factor in enabling Bell Labs to go beyond any other lab.

But Bell Labs wouldn’t be Bell Labs if it was just a monopoly-driven research lab. Kelly designed Murray Hill, the New Jersey home of Bell Labs, to be a building where people had to run into each other going back and forth. This is now pretty common (e.g. at Google, they have a micro-kitchen on every floor to encourage such congregation), but at the time was very unusual. He then populated that building with the smartest people he could find, regardless of their field of expertise – physics, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, electronics – every field was relevant to something AT&T was doing (e.g. going from the vacuum tube to the transistor required inputs from all of those fields). Another aside: the scope of what they had to create included all sorts of things I wouldn’t have thought of but were an essential part of building for the long term – the book talked about burying wood logs in swamps to see how they would hold up to 20 years of service as a telephone pole, or designing materials that could handle seawater so they could insulate their underwater cables.

Kelly also instituted a culture where these bright minds could work on what they wanted, and ask anybody anything – so if you wanted to ask Shockley (the inventor of the transistor) a question about semiconductor physics, you just went and did it. This created a cross-pollination of ideas, where you might have a cockamamie idea, but could go ask the world expert on it, who was just down the hall, and that might lead you together to think of a more reasonable idea, so you’d stroll down the hall some more to talk to an engineer who could build a prototype. And the challenges of running a nationwide communication network meant that there were always new problems to think about. This combination of challenges and bright minds and the need to turn ideas into real products led to an enormous number of breakthroughs.

It’s interesting that nearly a century later, the same principles are still at the forefront of creating innovation. The Anthropology of Innovation panel talked about breaking down silos between fields, and about focusing on the user (Bell Labs was always grounded by the mission of delivering the best possible service to somebody making a phone call). The principles are straightforward, but it’s hard to really apply them, and so it’s impressive to read about an institution that did so and was pre-eminent as a result for decades. I don’t think such a lab could exist today (again, the monopoly-protected revenue stream was a key component), but it’s an inspiring example of how to take those principles and create a beacon of innovation.

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