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: 70,089
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?”

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)

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

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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