The Idea Factory
Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
The definitive history of America's greatest incubator of technological innovation
In this first full portrait of the legendary Bell Labs, journalist Jon Gertner takes readers behind one of the greatest collaborations between business and science in history. Officially the research and development wing of AT&T, Bell Labs made seminal breakthroughs from the 1920s to the 1980s in everything from lasers to cellular elephony, becoming arguably the best laboratory for new ideas in the world. Gertner's riveting narrative traces the intersections between science, business, and society that allowed a cadre of eccentric geniuses to lay the foundations of the information age, offering lessons in management and innovation that are as vital today as they were a generation ago.
This book is about the origins of modern communications as seen through the adventures of several men who spent their careers working at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Even more, though, this book is about innovation—about how it happens, why it happens, and who makes it happen. It is likewise about why innovation matters, not just to scientists, engineers, and corporate executives but to all of us. That the story is about Bell Labs, and even more specifically about life at the Labs between the late 1930s and the mid-1970s, isn’t a coincidence. In the decades before the country’s best minds began migrating west to California’s Silicon Valley, many of them came east to New Jersey, where they worked in capacious brick-and-glass buildings located on grassy campuses where deer would graze at twilight. At the peak of its reputation in the late 1960s, Bell Labs employed about fifteen thousand people, including some twelve hundred PhDs. Its ranks included the world’s most brilliant (and eccentric) men and women. In a time before Google, the Labs sufficed as the country’s intellectual utopia. It was where the future, which is what we now happen to call the present, was conceived and designed.
For a long stretch of the twentieth century, Bell Labs was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. It was arguably among the world’s most important commercial organizations as well, with countless entrepreneurs building their businesses upon the Labs’ foundational inventions, which were often shared for a modest fee. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t Bell Labs’ intended function. Rather, its role was to support the research and development efforts of the country’s then-monopolistic telephone company, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), which was seeking to create and maintain a system—the word “network” wasn’t yet common—that could connect any person on the globe to any other at any time. AT&T’s dream of “universal” connectivity was set down in the early 1900s. Yet it took more than three-quarters of a century for this idea to mature, thanks largely to the work done at Bell Labs, into a fantastically complex skein of copper cables and microwave links and glass fi bers that tied together not only all of the planet’s voices but its images and data, too. In those evolutionary years, the world’s business, as well as its technological progress, began to depend on information and the conduits through which it moved. Indeed, the phrase used to describe the era that the Bell scientists helped create, the age of information, suggested we had left the material world behind. A new commodity— weightless, invisible, fleet as light itself—defined the times.
A new age makes large demands. At Bell Labs, it required the efforts of tens of thousands of scientists and engineers over many decades— millions of “man-hours,” in the parlance of AT&T, which made a habit of calculating its employees’ toil to a degree that made its workers proud while also keeping the U.S. government (which closely monitored the company’s business practices and long-distance phone monopoly) at bay. For reasons that are conceptual as well as practical, this book does not focus on those tens of thousands of Bell Laboratories workers. Instead, it looks primarily at the lives of a select and representative few: Mervin Kelly, Jim Fisk, William Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and William Baker. Some of these names are notorious—Shockley, for instance, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 and in his later years steadfastly pursued a scientific link between race and intelligence. Others, such as Shannon, are familiar to those within a certain area of interest (in Shannon’s case, mathematics and artificial intelligence) while remaining largely unknown to the general public. Pierce, a nearly forgotten figure, was the father of satellite communications and an instigator of more ideas than can be properly accounted for here. Kelly, Fisk, and Baker were presidents of the Labs, and served as stewards during the institution’s golden age. All these men knew one another, and some were extremely close. With the exception of Mervin Kelly, the eldest of the group, they were sometimes considered members of a band of Bell Labs revolutionaries known as the Young Turks. What bound them was a shared belief in the nearly sacred mission of Bell Laboratories and the importance of technological innovation.
The men preferred to think they worked not in a laboratory but in what Kelly once called “an institute of creative technology.” This description aimed to inform the world that the line between the art and science of what Bell scientists did wasn’t always distinct. Moreover, while many of Kelly’s colleagues might have been eccentrics, few were dreamers in the less flattering sense of the word. They were paid for their imaginative abilities. But they were also paid for working within a culture, and within an institution, where the very point of new ideas was to make them into new things.
Should we care about how new ideas begin? Practically speaking, if our cell phones ring and our computer networks function we don’t need to recall how two men sat together in a suburban New Jersey laboratory during the autumn of 1947 and invented the transistor, which is the essential building block of all digital products and contemporary life. Nor should we need to know that in 1971 a team of engineers drove around Philadelphia night after night in a trailer home stocked with sensitive radio equipment, trying to set up the first working cell phone system. In other words, we don’t have to understand the details of the twentieth century in order to live in the twenty-first. And there’s a good reason we don’t have to. The history of technology tends to remain stuffed in attic trunks and the minds of aging scientists. Those breakthrough products of past decades—the earliest silicon solar cells, for example, which were invented at Bell Labs in the 1950s and now reside in a filing cabinet in a forlorn warehouse in central New Jersey—seem barely functional by today’s standards. So rapid is the evolutionary development of technological ideas that the journey from state-of-the-art to artifact can occur in a mere few years.
Still, good arguments urge us to contemplate scientific history. Bill Gates once said of the invention of the transistor, “My first stop on any time-travel expedition would be Bell Labs in December 1947.” It’s a perceptive wish, I think. Bell Labs was admittedly imperfect. Like any elite organization, it suffered at times from personality clashes, institutional arrogance, and—especially in its later years—strategic missteps. Yet understanding the circumstances that led up to that unusual winter of 1947 at Bell Labs, and what happened there in the years afterward, promises a number of insights into how societies progress. With this in mind, one might think of a host of reasons to look back at these old inventions, these forgotten engineers, these lost worlds.
While our engineering prowess has advanced a great deal over the past sixty years, the principles of innovation largely have not. Indeed, the techniques forged at Bell Labs—that knack for apprehending a vexing problem, gathering ideas that might lead to a solution, and then pushing toward the development of a product that could be deployed on a massive scale—are still worth considering today, where we confront a host of challenges (information overloads, infectious disease, and climate change, among others) that seem very nearly intractable. Some observers have taken to calling them “wicked problems.” As it happens, the past offers the example of one seemingly wicked problem that was overcome by an innovative effort that rivals the Apollo program and Manhattan Project in size, scope, expense, and duration. That was to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.
“At first sight,” the writer Arthur C. Clarke noted in the late 1950s, “when one comes upon it in its surprisingly rural setting, the Bell Telephone Laboratories’ main New Jersey site looks like a large and up-to-date factory, which in a sense it is. But it is a factory for ideas, and so its production lines are invisible.” Some contemporary thinkers would lead us to believe that twenty-first-century innovation can only be accomplished by small groups of nimble, profit-seeking entrepreneurs working amid the frenzy of market competition. Those idea factories of the past— and perhaps their most gifted employees—have no lessons for those of us enmeshed in today’s complex world. This is too simplistic. To consider what occurred at Bell Labs, to glimpse the inner workings of its invisible and now vanished “production lines,” is to consider the possibilities of what large human organizations might accomplish.
“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
“An expansive new history . . . does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.” — Wired.com
You’ve written about business, technology and the economy in the past, so it makes sense you would be interested in the history of a leading American technology company. Why Bell Labs specifically?
One answer is that I grew up near Bell Labs – just a few hundred yards away, in fact – and knew the place fairly well. Even from a young age I understood its achievements and its mystique. But really it goes deeper than that. As a journalist I’ve long been interested in the subject of innovation, and especially how innovations impact business and society. For a number of reasons, Bell Labs represents the ultimate example of that. It was an organization whose innovative accomplishments – developed over the course of 50 years -- changed the very nature of global business and society. No other organization comes close. So the opportunity to understand this place on a very deep level, and then write about it, was the chance of a lifetime.
We know much of our telecommunications technology came from Bell Labs. What else do we owe the scientists and innovators who worked there?
Communications is a pretty broad mission, and there were a host of things that came out of Bell Labs that might be considered at the very edge of their mandate. The lasers we use today in telecommunications as well as in surgery are directly descended from the lasers first developed there. The earliest silicon solar cells, which were invented at the Labs, now form the basis for the solar panels that are popping up everywhere. The Labs scientists made a host of advances in our essential computer languages, such as UNIX and C+. They also developed a wide variety of military technologies – for instance, in the command and control of both offensive and defensive missiles. Computer generated music came out of Bell Labs, along with some big advances in computer-generated speech. And the ideas for how to build a cellular telephone system originated there, too. In the 1960s, Bell Labs researchers built something called the CCD (the Charge Coupled Device), which forms the basis for all digital photography. They won a Nobel Prize for that.
And keep in mind: These are just some of the practical technologies. The list of theories and pure theoretical papers is also very, very long. For instance, some physicists at Bell Labs explained the Fractional Quantum Hall effect (a revolutionary, groundbreaking moment in physics), which won them a Nobel Prize, too.
Bell Labs was an extremely productive predecessor to Silicon Valley. Can you explain what made Bell Labs so successful?
I wish I could say for the sake of simplicity that there was one overarching reason. But I think there were actually three qualities that were most important to Bell Labs success, and they all reinforced each other. First, the Labs’ staff was large and included the finest scientists and engineers on the planet. Putting them in close physical proximity and encouraging them to exchange ideas and seek out new research partners was a recipe for success. Second, the Labs, as part of AT&T’s telephone monopoly, had a steady stream of funding that was essentially guaranteed far into the future. So projects could be undertaken that would last literally decades, without any worry they would be discontinued. At the same time, those funds could be used to hire the very best people and to train young engineers with continuing coursework. The third and final reason: Work was conducted within what one former Bell labs researcher described to me as “a circumscribed freedom.” The technical staff at the Labs, in other words, had a lot of room to follow the ideas they found compelling. But at the same time they were asked to follow ideas that would help improve the country’s communications systems. So in a sense, they knew – anyone at Bell Labs knew – that an idea or invention could ultimately have some practical application. One way to interpret this is to say that Bell Labs wasn’t just an ivory tower. It was an ivory tower with a factory located downstairs.
You share the stories of many fascinating individuals who worked at Bell Labs. Do any in particular stand out for you?
The book’s narrative is mainly built around a group of men who were known at the Labs as “The Young Turks.” I have a hunch that different readers will find different members of this group interesting. Certainly the most famous are William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, and Claude Shannon, an eccentric mathematician who developed something known as Information Theory. But for me the two most compelling characters in the book are Mervin Kelly, the powerful and secretive manager at Bell Labs who really built the place into a scientific empire, and John Pierce, an engineer who created the first communications satellite. Pierce was a prolific writer and something of a Renaissance man whose interests ran from psychology to music to art. He appreciated ideas in a profound way, and he fostered them through his influence as a Bell Labs executive. Finally, Pierce had an odd and endearing sense of humor that I think reflected his deep humanity. I read through his personal papers over the course of a week in Pasadena, and I felt a sharp sadness at the end of that week. He was a great scientist, but also a unique human being. And he passed away before I ever got the chance to meet him.
What do you think was the most important moment in Bell Labs’ history?
It would probably have to be the invention of the transistor. Or, rather, the inventions of the transistors, since there were several different kinds invented during the late 1940s and 1950s. These are the tiny building blocks of all contemporary technology, and there are now billions of them on the chips that power our computers and phones. Modern life would not be modern without them. And incidentally, there were several different kinds of techniques invented at Bell Labs that allowed those transistor devices to be made better and more efficiently. That too is quite important: Bell Labs not only specialized in inventing new technology, but in coming up with remarkable new ways to manufacture the new technology.
Did you learn something that surprised you while working on this book?
I was consistently surprised by how far ahead of their time so many of the researchers at Bell Labs were. Claude Shannon, for instance, was thinking about how to send messages through digital technologies decades before most people even knew what digital technologies were. And 30 years before it came to pass, John Pierce imagined the future to be hand-held wireless phones and a single computer terminal in our homes through which all data flowed in and out. Just amazing.
Are there any Bell Labs alumni still around today?
Oh sure, plenty. I interviewed dozens of them for my book. And there are thousands of men and women who worked in all sorts of different departments during the glory days of the Labs who have spread out into the wider work force – into academia, and even to companies like Google and Microsoft. Some of these folks are from the “old Bell Labs” – that is, the Bell Labs that existed before the phone company was broken up in the early 1980s. But there is still, even now, a division at Alcatel-Lucent (the company that inherited some of the businesses of the old AT&T), which is known as Bell Labs. It’s a much smaller entity than the old Bell Labs was, and it has more focused, business-related goals. But there are still scientists and engineers employed there that do research and development on the future of telecommunications. Some of their most promising work is in light-wave transmission – that is, data that moves as light pulses through fiber optic cables.
What can business leaders and government officials learn from the success of Bell Labs?
We seem to be living in a moment where we glorify the individual entrepreneur, but there’s a lot to be said for the power and capabilities of large human organizations. So I’d love for business leaders and officials to read the book and understand how large groups of talented scientists and engineers, assembled together in one entity and managed by smart, visionary leaders, can solve very big problems and accomplish things once believed to be unthinkable. But to do so they need time, resources, and freedom. One of the scientists I interviewed for the book, a former president of Bell Labs, told me that if I had informed him at the start of his career in the 1950s that he was working for an organization that would help figure out ways to put millions of transistors on a chip; or create glass fibers so clear they could carry light-waves hundreds of miles; or they would figure out ways to get computers to speak and understand language, he would have told me I was out of my mind. But by the time he retired in the 1990s, Bell Labs did all those things and more. And one of the reasons it did so was because the leadership was not only interested in building radical new technologies, it was also interested in understanding the fundamental principles behind why those technologies worked. And that knowledge, once gained, helped unleash an almost limitless innovative capacity.
Do you think we can create and foment another Bell Labs?
I’m not sure we want to go back in time and make an exact copy of the past. The world was different then – not just the state of technology, but even the compensation scales for engineers. Remember, this was an era before Internet millionaires and Silicon Valley, before corporations started wooing away the best engineers with huge pay packages. There was no iPhone; there weren’t even personal computers. But all that said, I do believe many aspects about Bell Labs can serve as a model or inspiration. Because I don’t think you can just call it chance or serendipity that this one group of scientists, working at this one laboratory in New Jersey, during a relatively small span of years, came out with such an astonishing array of new technologies and new knowledge. They knew something. So what did they know that we should think about, too?
Well, again, there’s this idea that the right people situated together in the right place with the right management – and with resources and freedom – can do great things. But I think Bell Labs teaches us two other things worth considering, too. First, important innovations – not just a new consumer product, but an innovation that serves the basis for a whole new industry, as was the case with transistors or laser – takes time. We live in a faster world, where we have a habit of multitasking and have access to unfathomable amounts of information instantly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can produce important new knowledge faster. Second is that Bell Labs was superlative because it was a combination of a research organization, a development organization, and to some extent a manufacturing organization. So at the same time its researchers were thinking ahead by 10 or 20 years, its development engineers were thinking ahead by two or three years. They constantly worried about the best way to build communications technologies and commercialize them. So the people there, all thrown together, looked far ahead at the same time they looked to the near term. It was a tremendously vital combination.
In the book I note that today’s telecommunications business is thriving and innovative and might hardly need a new Bell Labs. But I happen to think Bell Labs is a useful model for medicine and energy research. These are fields that are full of greater possibility. And they are both fields where we need to think far ahead, to a world of cancer cures and clean energy, at the same time that we’re thinking about what’s just over the next rise.
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