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

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

4.3 14
by Jon Gertner
     
 

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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… See more details below

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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
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.”

From the Publisher
“Filled with colorful characters and inspiring lessons . . . The Idea Factory explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation?” — Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review

“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

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.”
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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101561089
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/15/2012
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
121,998
File size:
4 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

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.”
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?”
Tim Wu
An engrossing and comprehensive story of the laboratory that invented the late 20th century. And I'll never forget the vision of Claude Shannon on his unicycle, juggling. (Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch; Professor of Law at Columbia University)
From the Publisher
"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.”—Kirkus

Clay Shirky
For 50 years, the most important R&D lab in America was run by the phone company. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner brings Bell Labs to life, a place where weird science (and a few weird scientists) brought us much of the technological progress of the 20th century. (Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus)
Bill Joy
A timely and important book. More than just the fascinating story of the amazing innovations and colorful innovators of Bell Labs, The Idea Factory gives incredible insight into the ways in which Bell Labs not only invented the future but invented new ways of invention. In a time when America needs innovation more than ever this book is a pleasurable read for innovators, but a must read for those who wish to excel at fostering innovation. (Bill Joy, Partner and Greentech Investor, KPCB; Co-founder and CTO, Sun Microsystems; Futurist)

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