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

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

by Jon Gertner


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The definitive history of America’s greatest incubator of innovation and the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143122791
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/26/2013
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 198,532
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

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

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.”

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)

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?”

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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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book outlining the personalities, decisions and context of some of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
bcps More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the rare books I started to read and could not wait to finish! Even set aside my income tax preparation!!
pw0327 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent history of Bell Labs. The author did a massive amount of research and produced a tremendous document which related the history of Bell Labs to the general audience. The characters in the story are synonymous with 20th century American innovation and invention. Bardeen, Shockley, Brattain, Shannon. The inventions critical to the rise of American prominence in technology: the transistor, the laser, the first lower ear orbit by a man made device, information theory. It was the best of times for American ingenuity, all because of a group of visionary engineers and scientists. It is the story of Mervin Kelly's vision, it is the story of how the Bell telephone company leveraged a government approved monopoly into the foremost research and development institution in the world, and then allowed it to be destroyed via the aegis of free trade. There are times that competition does horrible things to human imagination and effort, this is one of those instances.Gertner is a technology buff, so his narrative accounts of how the inventions came about and the character and foibles of the men who created these technologies are stimulating and riveting. If you are a technology geek, this book is the answer to your prayers. It also helps that the very inventions he details as well as the Bell Labs as an institution is something almost all engineers studies in their early professional education. So it is that I was able to immediately grasp and absorb the importance and the beauty of the accounting.I think the most intriguing thing to me was the intentional planning and design of the original Bell Labs building and how they managed to pull off the perfect research think tank. The ideas and features of what made Bell labs great are being practiced today in Silicon Vally and in Oregon. This history perfectly illustrates that the environment surrounding very smart people is just as important as the very smart people.
dickmanikowski on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Highly readable history of Bell Labs and the many brilliant scientists and technicians who worked there to develop the transistor, the solid state circuit, fiber optics, satellite and wireless communications, and other technologies that made modern telecommunications not only possible but affordable to the masses.
mrminjares on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The idea factory tells the story of Bell Labs and the almost magical production of ground breaking discoveries it is responsible for generating in the 20th century. These include the vacuum tube, the transitor, the communications satellite, information theory, fiber optic cables, cellular telephones, radar, superconductivity ... the list goes on.So what made this innovation possible? This is the fundamental question the book asks. The answer is interesting, since it relates to both the people who worked at Bell Labs, and the unique situation it was in. Firstly, the people at Bell Labs were uniformly at the head of their fields and chosen from a select group of research universities. These include the University of Chicago, Caltech, MIT, and Princeton. Many of the first staff at Bell Labs came from the lab of Robert Millikan, who later went on to start Caltech. Secondly, the staff at Bell Labs were given complete free reign. Projects still required approval from management, but most were approved so long as they were at least tangentially related to communications. Thirdly, management did not penalize staff whose projects failed. This was considered a part of the business. Fourth, management did not get involved in the projects of research staff. A certain distance was maintained. Fifth, a chain of research and development was established beginning with basic research, then applied research, development, and finally production. This enabled incredible follow through from end-to-end research, development and production. Sixth, Bell Labs was financially supported by AT&T at a time when it operated under a federally sanctioned monopoly. So long as this continued, AT&T was able to commit resources to research projects that could take decades to fully mature since it could expect to almost exclusively benefit from the products that were ultimately created.Other characteristics of Bell Labs supported constant innovation. These included an open door policy, where your door was never closed. If someone asked you for your help, you gave it to them and dropped what you were doing. Lab space was always available, and smart people were allowed to choose the projects that interested them. A very diverse group was put together in the same physical space - mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and others from different backgrounds would mingle and joint together to pursue interesting projects. And the buildings they were placed in were designed to force interaction. This included one very long hallway at Murray Hill that forced people to walk past one another and interact.Will Bell Labs ever exist again? Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, is trying to re-create something similar with a focus on challenging research problems in the energy sector. Whether this succeeds will require still much more time to tell.
gsatell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Informative and well researched, poorly written and edited.
Becky-Books More than 1 year ago
The subject was interesting, but the writer was all over the board. This book was selected for a book club that I am a member. Not one person enjoyed it. There were a lot of interesting facts and it could've been a great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While the subject matter of the book is coming from a very technical area, the author writes in an easy to read manner that is not highly technical (i.e., highly equation-oriented.) He places his story within the context of a unique period in American history.
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