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

( 13 )

Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Decades before America's scientific thinkers began migrating to Silicon Valley, Bell Laboratories of Murray Hill, New Jersey was setting the pace for technological progress. In fact, according to New York Times Magazine journalist Jon Gertner, Bell Labs was the most innovative and productive institution of the twentieth century. His new book offers an utterly fascinating portrait of an intellectual lab which seems in retrospect almost utopian: Employees from different fields were encouraged to work together with little pressure to create immediately marketable products. A lively history and a revealing case study in how to generate new technology and new ideas; now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

New York Times Magazine writer 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. "To consider what occurred at Bell Labs...is to consider the possibilities of what large human organizations might accomplish." Tracing the lives of key contributors-including Bill Shockley, John Pierce, Claude Shannon, and Mervin Kelley-Gertner provides a compelling history that moves quickly through an era that provided many of the advancements of modern life. From Bell Labs personnel-working for AT&T as well as the government during wartime-came an astonishing array of technology, from the telephone (which originally didn't have a ringer), to radar, synthetic rubber, and the laser. According to Pierce, the Bell Labs environment nurtured creativity by simply allowing scientists and engineers the time and money to research; its management was able to "think long-term toward the revolutionary, and to simultaneously think near-term toward manufacturing." Readers will glimpse the inner workings of the famed scientists, particularly Shannon, who "frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing"-and occasionally doing both. 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. Scientists, tinkerers, managers, and HR professionals will find plenty of inspiration here.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Times
…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
Kirkus Reviews
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.
The New York Times Book Review
…a well-­researched history of Bell Labs, filled with colorful characters and inspiring lessons. But more important, The Idea Factory explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation? Why does it happen, and how might we nurture it? The lesson of Bell Labs is that most feats of sustained innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenious inventor. They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferably in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters.
—Walter Isaacson
Wired.com
“An expansive new history . . . does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Compelling . . . Gertner's book offers fascinating evidence for those seeking to understand how a society should best invest its research resources.”
The Boston Globe
“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.”
Slate Book Review

“Fascinating history . . . the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.”
Walter Isaacson
“Filled with colorful characters and inspiring lessons . . . The Idea Factory explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation?”
Michiko Kakutani
“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.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203282
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 3/15/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 305,601
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jon Gertner has been a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine since 2004, where he writes about business, technology, and society. He has also served as a senior editor for Money and The American Lawyer. A graduate of Cornell University, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and their two children.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Wicked Problems 1

Part 1 7

1 Oil Drops 9

2 West to East 25

3 System 41

4 War 59

5 Solid State 75

6 House of Magic 92

7 The Informations 115

8 Man and Machine 136

9 Formula 149

10 Silicon 163

11 Empire 175

Part 2187

12 An Instigator 189

13 On Crawford Hill 205

14 Futures, Real and Imagined 228

15 Mistakes 250

16 Competition 266

17 Apart 284

18 Afterlives 304

19 Inheritance 330

20 Echoes 339

Acknowledgments 361

Endnotes and Amplifications 367

Sources 401

Selected Bibliography 409

Index 413

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2014

    Awesome

    Great book outlining the personalities, decisions and context of some of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2012

    Unknown

    Waits for cats. **Unknown, Unknown**

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2012

    Nine Years to Write!

    This history of Bell Labs is a history of the technology we live with today. All of our Internet powerhouses owe their existance to Bell, building their organizations and, often, getting their people from it. There were giants in those days.

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  • Posted April 22, 2012

    great reading about the start of the tech industry

    had no idea about all of the innovations that Bell Labs and Western Electric were responsible for - one of the few books i had to find time to read every day until it was finished

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2012

    Great Book!

    One of the rare books I started to read and could not wait to finish!
    Even set aside my income tax preparation!!

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    Posted April 6, 2012

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