Book Review: The Idea Factory

By Rick Bell Tuesday, July 31, 2012

No single company is more responsible for our 21st century technological era than the “Bell Labs” division of Ma Bell, THE Phone Company, originally known as American Telephone &Telegraph.  Oh, I know you can quickly name a dozen other companies who made excellent products and monumental strides in technology, including HP, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Apple, Google, and on and on, but all of these companies would never have happened, were it not for Bell Labs. In fact, they could not have happened had there been no Bell Labs.

You see, ten years before Steve Jobs was born, Bell Labs was running a research facility in New Jersey, which would employ tens of thousands of America’s best scientists, many of them concentrating on basic research. Basic Research includes testing a given material – silicon being one of them - for all of its obvious and potential characteristics and co-characteristics, in order to build whole new platforms upon which new technologies can be launched. Their object was to invent the devices necessary to build a telephone system for the future that “Could connect any person to any other person, anytime.”

After America’s triumph in WWII, before television was introduced to the American public, it was by any measure a “long-Term” view. At that time, with vacuum tubes being necessary to transmit voice waves from repeater station to repeater station every 30 miles, the circuitry necessary to create an iPhone 4S would have taken up a space the size of Grand Central Station.

Scientists at Bell Labs were the first to discover how to use the magic of silicon to create the first “Transistor” in 1946. This was the primary building block of the electronics age, replacing the vacuum tube.  After that, they went on to invent the Solar Cell in 1954, the LASER in 1958, and in 1962, they built and successful launched the first commutations satellite which enabled the cellular world to become a reality. And that’s not the half of it….

So now you see what I mean when I say that without Bell Labs, none of what we experience today, from a technology standpoint, would exist. It’s true. But the story of HOW Bell Labs did it, and WHY such broad scale innovation came out of it is even more fascinating that my introduction.

The Idea Factory a new book by Fast Company Articles Editor Jon Gertner and New York Times writer is the amazing adventure of Bell Labs, from its beginnings as Alexander Graham Bell’s own laboratory through several decades when it was the premier Technology Laboratory in America, and perhaps the World.  It’s the story of how innovation is achieved on a major scale, and why nurturing such innovation is important. At Bell Labs, they broke all the rules of company organizational science in order to discover new sciences like Solid State Physics and Satellite Communications. In some ways, they were the Google of their time, and their time stretched over many decades.

Reading Gertner’s book is like being told the story by somebody who knows all the related details, as well as the obvious ones. He lets you in on what really happened and has due respect for the individuals who crafted the personality of Bell Labs and made it possible for it to develop it into a scientific colossus.

It is captivating to read. It is a lesson in management, the tale of a uniquely American triumph and a chronicle of what happened at Bell Labs in New Jersey that changed the world.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, The Penguin Press, New York, NY 2012 by Jon Gertner. $28.95 list price, 442 pages. Available anywhere new books are sold.

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