The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory by John Gertner tells the story of Bell Labs from the 1930s to 1990s.  Bell Laboratories was the research arm of AT&T, the US phone company that had a monopoly position for decades, providing local phone service, long distance, and telecommunications equipment.  I just finished the book yesterday, and I highly recommend it. download

Bell Labs was responsible for so many innovations and discoveries it is mind-boggling. In fact, it’s difficult to find a modern device or technology Bell Labs didn’t have some involvement in or influence on.  Some of the things they accomplished include inventing the transistor and solid state electronics, developed microwave communications, created the Unix operating system, created automated electronic switching of telephone calls, developed fiber optics, authored information theory which lead to the creation of the digital computer, developed integrated circuits, created lasers, launched satellites, invented solar cells, and designed cellular telephone.  Bell Labs was perhaps the greatest collection of inventors, scientists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, academics, and metallurgists ever assembled.  What made Bell Labs so unique and so successful?  Some reasons include:

  1. Bell Labs researchers understood how and why the technology worked.  It was a departure from “cut and try” inventing, like that of Edison.
  2. All employees could talk to and mingle with any other employee, and the buildings and corporate culture was designed to insure this interaction.  Junior researchers could bounce ideas off of senior (and often famous) employees in hallways, meeting rooms, and even in dinners in their home living rooms.
  3. There was no direct motivation to produce usable, profitable products.  Some technology research, like the laser, even had no identifiable problem to solve or real life application at the time.
  4. There was no pressure for researchers to seek funding or grants.  Funding came from revenue from the long distance and local telephone service operating companies of AT&T.
  5. Research projects that were not bearing fruit could be ended without damning the researcher.
  6. Researchers were free to pursue their own side projects and interests, and were actually expected to take on projects other than their direct assignments.
  7. Bell Labs shared all technology and research with the public, due to an agreement with the US government in exchange to preserve its monopoly.

From the start of research to use in “The System” as they called the Bell System, was usually 20 to 30 years.  Technology and equipment were designed to last 40 years, or more.  Bell Labs was split from AT&T after Divestiture in 1984 and is now a shadow of itself, a division of Alcatel Lucent, still in the buildings in Murray Hill, NJ where the transistor was invented.  Their innovations continue to live on in most electronics and communications we use today.

Gertner covers the technologies and inventions of Bell Labs, skillfully and accurately describing them in a way that non-techies can understand but also resonates with technical geeks like me.  More importantly he goes in depth into the history of the people that made it all happen, people like Claude Shannon, Mervin Kelly, John Pierce, and William Shockley, not only talking about their accomplishments but also their culture, family, struggles, idiosyncrasies, and failures.

The book ends with somewhat of an indirect commentary on the demise of Bell Labs and the irony in that the technology they created led to Silicon Valley and the bubble/IPO/get rich quick and quarterly corporate financial results mentality we have today.  It’s no longer possible to achieve the monumental discoveries in major leaps like Bell Labs accomplished.  Unfortunately we have resigned ourselves to incremental improvements focused mainly on selling products, and not the pursuit of pure science and technology, which ultimately leads to better products and improvements in our lives.  Gertner makes note of the outstanding accomplishments of Bell Labs in light of the relationship with AT&T, the government, and the monopoly that was maintained, noting that it shows the tight relationship between government and capitalism.  I think there are lessons to be learned by both sides of the political spectrum from this, in regards to government involvement and regulations, and large corporations, both of which are often demonized today.

The Idea Factory doesn’t specifically mention amateur radio, but undoubtedly many radio amateurs worked at Bell Labs.  I think the book and the story of Bell Labs offers some lessons for us, however.  While none of us will have grand accomplishments like Claude Shannon, we can be be innovators, be creative, and pursue technology and science for merely the sake of pursuing it.  Most of the major Bell Labs researchers came from modest means, often in rural America.  The next Brattain or Bardeen may be that young kid in our midst who is interested in radio, astronomy, science fiction, or microcontrollers.  We need to not be satisfied with just being operators of radio technology, but understand it and experiment, and create.

My writing can’t do Bell Labs or The Idea Factory justice, however if you’re into technology and innovation, I highly recommend this book.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

Anthony, K3NG, is a regular contributor to

2 Responses to “The Idea Factory”

  • David WB4ONA:

    “Unfortunately we have resigned ourselves to incremental improvements focused mainly on selling products, and not the pursuit of pure science and technology, which ultimately leads to better products and improvements in our lives. Gertner makes note of the outstanding accomplishments of Bell Labs in light of the relationship with AT&T, the government, and the monopoly that was maintained, noting that it shows the tight relationship between government and capitalism.”

    Total nonsense.

    While Bell Labs did accomplish a lot, we have been moving along just fine dispute their demise. But I can only dream how much further along we would be without the over-regulation and over-taxation of our progressively Socialist Government.

  • Goody K3NG:

    The transistor would have undoubtedly been invented with or without Bell Labs or the monopoly. The book notes the concept of “Steam Engine Time”, a common thought at the Labs. The steam engine was invented at the time it was because it was the time that it was needed in history. Such was the case with the transistor. Inventions like the laser were not created within steam engine time, and it was a product of the special environment created from the monopoly. The technological leaps and bounds made between the 1930s and late 1960s quite simply would not have happened without the government-enabled monopoly.

    I won’t argue there were not benefits from the 1984 Divestiture, or the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which was widely lambasted by AT&T monopoly fans. Both undoubtedly enabled the commercialization of the Internet, which ironically was a creation of the US government using tax dollars for research.

    While I don’t long for another AT&T-like monopoly, the conclusion one draws from reading the history of Bell Labs and the environment we have today is chilling. There is a popular and growing anti-science sentiment and a disdain for academic research and the federal funding of it. Google once had somewhat of the environment that could lead to another Bell Labs, with a directive that every employee devote 20% of their time to side projects. Google eliminated that directive two or so years ago and shut down their Google Labs initiative. Apple made leaps and bounds with the iPhone, but without Jobs gone they’ve succumbed to incremental improvements of existing products and a focus on numbers and improvements in supply chain management. Both companies will never fund the kind of research that Bell Labs did. Few if any for-profit companies today can do the research that Bell Labs did with the razor sharp focus on quarterly numbers and Wall Street. Non-revenue generating academic research today is often blasted for having a vested interest in specific outcomes due to the pursuit of grants and funding. Climate research is a good example of this. Alternative energy research is an area that could undoubtedly benefit from more government funding and support.

    Outside of Bell Labs and arguments about technology, capitalism without reasonable and sufficient government regulation is an out-of-control crazy train that will be derailed by those who are given the opportunity to benefit by doing it. The subprime mortgage crisis is an example of this, and yet we still have politicians who want to remove the regulations that were put in place to prevent this from occurring again, after regulations were removed previously which created the opportunity for the crisis in the first place. I’ll spare you the long diatribe about how the lack of government regulation has led to flat middle class wages for decades and outrageous CEO-to-worker pay ratios. Claims of over-regulation and over-taxation are gross oversimplifications, but play well to the masses looking for something to be outraged about, to the delight of those who are opportunistically financially benefiting.

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