The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovationby Jon Gertner
From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs-officially, the research and development wing of AT&T-was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell
From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs-officially, the research and development wing of AT&T-was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century's most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men-Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker-who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.
“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, The New York Times
“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.” — The Boston Globe
“Fascinating history . . . the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.” — Slate Book Review
“Compelling . . . Gertner's book offers fascinating evidence for those seeking to understand how a society should best invest its research resources.” — The Wall Street Journal
“An expansive new history . . . does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.” — Wired.com
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.
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- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
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Meet the Author
Jon Gertner grew up in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, just a few hundred yards away from Bell Labs. He has been a writer for the New York Times Magazine since 2004 and is an editor at Fast Company magazine. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.
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