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ON THE SHELF - Reviewed by Robin Tatu

ON THE SHELFUtopia Lost

AT&T’s former unique status let genius flourish.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.


By Jon Gertner, Penguin Press 2012, 422 pages.


I t is easy to take for granted our 24/7  global connectivity and its progress from telegraph and telephone to fax, cell-phones and email and, finally, Internet-based social media and video. But it was on a grassy campus in Murray Hill, N.J., that many of these inventions were first conceived and developed; and this is the story Jon Gertner relates in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

At the height of its productivity, the Bell Telephone Laboratories employed some 1,200 science and engineering Ph.D.’s. The research unit formed one part of the massive three-pronged organization of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., with the business side focused on telephone customers throughout the United States and the manufacturing subsidiary, Western Electric, producing everything from telephone cables to poles and switchboards. This trifurcated organization secured extensive funding for the labs, while AT&T’s monopoly status ensured its research clout. Indeed, from the 1930s through 1970s, Bell Labs became “the country’s intellectual utopia” and in the process laid the foundations for modern telecommunications.

When Gertner, an editor at Fast Company magazine, declares that Bell Labs was “for a long stretch of the 20th century…the most innovative scientific organization in the world,” the panegyric tone of the book becomes clear. Given the labs’ astounding record of achievement, however – including the creation of the first transistor and cell-phone, silicon solar cells, laser technology, radio astronomy, and the UNIX operating system, not to mention several Nobel Prize awards – most engineers may agree and thoroughly enjoy this heady narrative of scientific
experimentation.

Focusing on six men strongly involved in shaping the labs, The Idea Factory provides insight into their lives, work, and eccentricities. Mervin Kelly, president from 1951 to 1959, played a pivotal role in establishing a tradition of wide-ranging research by recruiting top scientists and engineers, creating interdisciplinary working groups, and designing sleek, efficient buildings for Murray Hill. Equally significant, but far more difficult a personality, was physicist William Shockley. Fearing that his contributions to the transistor would be overshadowed by the team working under him, Shockley secretly raced to make his own improvements that, once unveiled, secured his claim as coinventor. His subsequent efforts to operate a semiconductor lab in Mountain Valley, Calif., were marred by further disputes with coworkers, yet his company and the several spinoffs it inspired formed the beginnings of Silicon Valley.

Perhaps the most unusual researcher was mathematician and electrical engineer Claude Shannon, credited with the origins of information theory, or IT. As someone who enjoyed building complex mechanical toys and pedaling through the office halls at night on a unicycle – sometimes while juggling – Shannon declared himself to be more interested in the elegance of a problem than its practical application. In 1948, his treatise “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” would prove both elegant and revolutionary in its proposed use of binary digits – strings of ones and zeros – for electronic transmissions.

These vivid profiles bring the workings of Bell Labs to life, as do discussions of several decades of collaboration with the U.S. government on cryptanalysis, spy satellites, and other covert projects. The association helped maintain AT&T’s monopoly, but pressure from the Justice Department eventually prevailed. In 1982 the company divested its local telephone branches, and inevitable downsizing followed. Today, the labs operate at one third their former size, jointly owned by French telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent.

Casting his eye upon the myriad companies that have taken pages from the Bell Labs playbook, Gertner asks if it is possible to revive a truly visionary approach to innovation. Though a few promising models are identified, including the energy innovation hubs established by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the author and others who weigh in generally agree that the circumstances of the period, the country, and company will not be replicated. Ending as a paean to the historic achievement of Bell Labs, the book nonetheless dangles the question of how to tackle our present and future wicked problems.

 

Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.

 


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