Book Review - Can Bell Labs, maker of America's 20th century, be replicated in the 21st?
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
By Jon Gertner
The Penguin Press; 432pp; $29.95
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #99 in Books
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.
The greatest invention of the Information Age began with a betrayal at Bell Labs. Around Christmas 1947, physicist William Shockley holed himself up in a Chicago hotel room. He feverishly filled pages he would later glue into his official notebook at Bell Laboratories, then the most important innovation hub in the U.S. The pages contained the design for something called a junction transistor—a grain-sized sandwich of silicon and germanium that would miniaturize the circuitry in telephone systems, radios, and televisions, and ultimately pave the way for computers. Shockley secretly planned to upstage his teammates at the lab, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, who had already invented a more primitive transistor but had shown it only to a small group of directors. At a Bell conference a month later, Shockley leapt out of his seat and announced his invention. Bardeen and Brattain sat in the audience, dumbfounded.
The strained collaboration would pass into the techie lore of Bell Labs’ Golden Age, and it’s one of the incidents chronicled in The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner’s history of the labs. Gertner, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and an editor at Fast Company, was raised in a New Jersey suburb beside Bell’s headquarters in Murray Hill. As a teenager, he lurked among its vast fields and buildings in awe of the hallowed site where great things had once been invented, but no longer were.
SOURCE: Businessweek.com, Amazon.com