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

Penguin Press
New York
, 2012. $29.95 (432 pp.). ISBN 978-1-59420-328-2

In The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, author Jon Gertner describes, in a new and compelling way, the inner workings of arguably one of the greatest industrial research organizations of the 20th century.

Gertner, who has written for the New York Times Magazine, traces the roots of Bell Labs primarily through a half dozen brilliant scientists and engineers and technically visionary leaders who gave birth to some of the defining communications and computer technologies of our time. Among those chosen were Mervin Kelly, the labs’ innovative research director and, later, its president; William Shockley, coinventor of the transistor; Claude Shannon, father of information theory and digital communications; and John Pierce, who envisioned communications satellites in the 1940s and instigated early work on cellular telephony and optical communications.

At the turn of the 20th century, during the era of great inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, executives at the American Telephone and Telegraph Co—later AT&T—began to recognize the need for a strong technical organization that could enhance its competitive position in the emerging area of long-distance telephone communications. But the role of scientific and engineering disciplines, such as physics and electrical engineering, in the pursuit of industrial innovation was only beginning to be appreciated. Around 1915, AT&T gave University of Chicago physicist Frank Jewett the task of bringing in technical experts to develop amplifiers for the vacuum-tube repeaters that maintain signal strength along transmission lines. Jewett recruited Kelly, Harold Arnold, Harvey Fletcher, and other students of his friend physics Nobelist Robert Millikan. Those students understood the value of “a knowledge of the things and methods of science” and the need to “bring to bear an aggregate of creative force on any particular problem.”

The success of the vacuum-tube repeater eventually led to the formation of Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1925 as a separate R&D arm. Kelly’s early vision of an “institute of creative technology” hinged on hiring such brilliant minds as William Baker, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, Pierce, Shannon, Shockley, and Charles Townes. Those scientists, and a few others, formed the nucleus of a research organization that also featured systems engineers and technology developers.

Through multiple interviews, particularly with some former Bell Labs executives, Gertner reveals many characteristics of a culture and institutional environment that spawned a large number of innovations. Bell Labs focused on the broad mission; motivated its researchers to continually strive for technology innovation; maintained an “end-to-end” business service as a matter of public trust; applied systems engineering thinking, which eased the integration of research and manufacturing; trusted its visionary and technically savvy leaders; recruited the “best and the brightest” researchers, who would not have to worry about applying for federal funding; and created an environment that encouraged long-term thinking and afforded its workers a “circumscribed freedom” that was at the same time “liberating and practical.”

Unusual for a corporate lab, Bell Labs was a place where office doors were open and the boundaries between disciplines were porous: Theorist Bardeen had an office in the lab of experimentalist Brattain, and the two recorded data side by side when transistor action was discovered. It was also a place where Shannon wandered the halls on a pogo stick, vice president of research Baker sat and interacted with staff members in the large cafeteria, and Kelly asked the research staff to investigate “not what is known” but rather “what is not known.”

In the last chapter of The Idea Factory, entitled “Echoes,” Gertner asks the following: In a time of venture capitalists, open innovation, and highly successful information technology companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, is there a need for an organization like Bell Labs? Can we expect venture-driven companies, including ones reaping healthy profits, to invest in truly long-term research projects? Those are important questions for science policymakers as they debate the merits of different innovation models.

For answers, Gertner suggests looking beyond the information technology industry to such areas as the life sciences, which has the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia, and clean energy, which includes energy innovation hubs championed by Steven Chu, a former Bell Labs researcher and the current secretary of the US Department of Energy.

In my view, we need new modalities of public–private partnerships to enable radical innovation for the public good. The Idea Factory is well worth delving into as a source of lessons learned in how to build forward-looking, innovative technology institutions.