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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great…
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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (edition 2013)

by Jon Gertner (Author)

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5791729,659 (4.17)7
This work highlights achievements of Bell Labs as a leading innovator, exploring the role of its highly educated employees in developing new technologies while considering the qualities of companies where innovation and development are most successful. The author shows how Bell Labs served as an incubator for scientific innovation from the 1920s through the 1980s. In its heyday, Bell Labs boasted nearly 15,000 employees, 1,200 of whom held PhDs and 13 of whom won Nobel Prizes. And at its heart this is a story about a small group of brilliant and eccentric men including Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Thriving in a work environment that embraced new ideas, Bell Labs scientists introduced concepts that still propel many of today's most exciting technologies. 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 telephony, 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. -- Publisher description.… (more)
Member:jamesgate
Title:The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Authors:Jon Gertner (Author)
Info:Penguin Books (2013), Edition: Reprint, 432 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:Biography

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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

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This book is highly recommended for a technology geek, history geek, history of technology geek, anyone interested in technological innovation, or just plain Ma Bell fans.

Mr. Gertner has amassed an excellent, in-depth (depth as in really deep), coverage of the phenomena that was Bell Labs. He's captured the development, processes, inventions, personalities - the egos, the drives, the vanities and intellects, the senses of humor (Jim Fisk "was fond of putting his colleagues on mailing lists of doctors peddling dubious tonics." !!) He writes with a literary description ("- men in crisp white shirts, sleeves rolled above their elbows, bent over rows and rows of drafting tables.") And, something I find quite refreshing, given this has to have elements of creative non-fiction (facts are dull...narrative gives them life):One afternoon, Mervin Kelly invited [Walter] Brattain over to his home in Short Hills to discuss the matter [Brattain's displeasure with William Schockley]. They likely met in Kelly's study, where he saw all his visitors - [...] My emphasis added, that is the way to write about unknown information!

So much information here, and insights into what Bell Labs was and created. Not all inventions, the processes that worked their way to the world:[Jack A.] Morton would eventually think more deeply about the innovative process than any Bell Labs scientist, with the possible exception of Kelly, In his view, innovation was not a simple action but a "total process" of interrelated parts. "It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of a new market, " he later wrote. "Rather, the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal."Holistic innovation. What a novel concept.

Gertner writes of the demise, that Bell Labs "ceased being essential to America's technology and culture." Sad that, for an institution that created the transistor - arguably the most significant invention ever, the integrated circuit, solar cells, lasers, and a host of other common place today innovations, an institution that reinvented itself many times, finally succumbed.

Excellent history. ( )
  Razinha | Nov 21, 2019 |
This book was excellent. I enjoyed it far more than I enjoyed Turing's Cathedral, which isn't really saying much, considering that I rated that book so low.

This book chronicles the story of Bell Telephone Laboratories, the official research arm of American Telephone and Telegraph from the 1920s to its demise in the 1980s when "Ma Bell" was split up by the government. It delves into the personalities of the big name players of BTL; Claude Shannon, William Shockley, John Pierce, Mervin Kelly, Jon Bardeen, and many others that made contributions to technology and innovation in America.

Unlike in Turing's Cathedral, the author of this book seems to know what he is talking about, another plus.

In any case, this book is divided into two parts consisting of 10 chapters each. It starts with the time when a phone monopoly was necessary, when Pulse Code Modulation wasn't developed yet and you needed a coast to coast company to maintain a network. Due to the work of Claude Shannon on information, it became less and less necessary to have a monopolistic corporation controlling and maintaining all of "the system" as it was called. Ironically, the technology developed by Bell Labs undermined the importance of Bell Labs.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book for me was how it related that Telephone Engineers used to design things to last for forty years, something unthinkable today.

So this book is really good, and you should read it if you like reading on the history of technology. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
The idea factory is about innovation management. It explores the history of Bell Labs from the 1920’ to the 1980’. Jon Gartner, the author of the book, answers one, the most important question of our era – what causes innovation? The book is an insightful and appealing record of the years of discovery at the Labs and core milestones in the history of technology that was achieved.

Bell Labs was the R&D department at AT&T which was a completely different organisation back then. It was the telephone monopoly in control of between 80 and 90 percent of the telephone service in the United States. AT&T ran the long distance service and owned either pieces or entire parts of local operating companies around the country. It was the biggest company in the world at the time. It employed the most people. Finally, it was the most valuable company. It was a true colossus at the time.Throughout those years of innovation, more than a dozen Bell Labs’ employees won seven Noble prizes. Jon Gartner takes us through the journey and shows how collective effort and collective thinking was accomplished in innovation management process. To have a full scale of this issue just keep in mind that the organisation was a behemoth which, at its peak, was employing more than a thousand PhDs.

In the beginning, the book focuses on how the transistor was invented, but then on it moves to semiconductors, microwave towers, digital transmission, satellites... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog: https://leadersarereaders.blog/the-idea-factory-bell-labs-and-the-great-age-of-a...) ( )
  LeadersAreReaders | Feb 19, 2019 |
Filled with trivial anecdotes and mundane details about people which adds nothing to the character or to the history of Bell Labs ( )
  artvandley | Sep 30, 2018 |
Summary: An account of the history of Bell Labs, the inventions and innovations they produced, and the confluence of people, resources, and the growth of the telecommunications revolution that drove it all.

The transistor. Digitized information. The laser. Microwave communications. The first communication satellite. Cellular technology. Fiber optic cable. All of these are the components of the digital telecommunications revolution we have witnessed over the last thirty years. All of these trace their origins back to one organization, Bell Labs. And the application of these technological breakthroughs ultimately contributed to the breakup of AT&T's monopoly over telecommunications, and eventually turned the labs into a shadow of its former self.

Jon Gertner traces this history interweaving an account of the people, the organization, the innovations, and the factors the fueled this incredible flourishing of research. It all begins with AT&T's vision of universal connectivity that fueled a research enterprise that relentless pursued solutions to the problems associated with realizing that vision. Significantly, it had to do with the virtual monopoly AT&T enjoyed until the 1980s and the huge sums of money from those monthly phone bills that provided a reliable source of research funding that allowed researchers the luxury of devoting years to studying, theorizing, experimenting, and perfecting new technologies.

Like many great organizations, Bell Labs enjoyed great leadership under the direction of Mervyn Kelly, one of the key figures profiled in this work. Kelly, in turn gathered around him an incredible array of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and engineers and created an ethos that unleashed an incredible period of creativity and innovation from the end of World War II up into the 1960's. Critical to this ethos was bringing these people to work side by side and to have informal access to one another as they worked on a variety of problems.

Gertner introduces us to this brilliant cast of scientists as he chronicles their inventions. We meet William Shockley and the team of John Bardeen and Walter Brattain who worked with him to invent the transistor. This was Shockley's golden hour, doing work that would lead to a Nobel Prize. Later he leaves to form a failed company in Silicon Valley, attracting the talent that would make the Valley what it is today. He ends his life spouting unscientific views about race.

Claude Shannon develops the foundations of information theory that contribute to the digital revolution while riding about the labs on a unicycle, juggling, and inventing an array of toys and machines like an electronic mouse that can learn to navigate a maze. John Pierce was known as "the instigator," for his capacity to envision new solutions, launch efforts to innovate and then restlessly move on. One of those was the first communications satellite, Telstar, fueled by solar cells also developed at Bell Labs. Charles H. Townes develops the first lasers, whose worked was added to those who envisioned using light to transmit huge volumes of information and those who created the pure glass cables that became fiber-optic technology to carry these transmissions. Doug Ring and his team at Holmdel Labs wrote papers and later set up transmission towers around the New Jersey countryside, developing cellular technology.

There are places, beginning with the West Street labs, where Kelly, and most of the others began their careers, Kelly in the vacuum tube lab. There is the Murray Hill campus in New Jersey where many of the technological innovations were developed. Most interesting of all was the "turkey shed" building at the Holmdel Labs where much of the work on microwave and cellular communication occurred. Eventually this quirky building was replace with an Eero Saarinen designed building, a rectangular black box, now sitting abandoned.

What is left of Bell Labs today is an industrial lab, serving more the needs of the moment than inventing the technology of the future. Gertner traces the demise of the great research lab to the very technology they developed, licensed to competitors at low prices as the cost of maintaining the AT& T monopoly for many years, until the competitors broke up the empire that fueled and funded this research enterprise.

The intriguing question that we are left with is whether there could be another "Bell Labs?" The concept of an enterprise that can afford to bring together a talented cadre of scientists, give them interesting problems and the time and resources to pursue them seems a luxury in this era of scarce research funding. Gertner considers the possibilities of something like this coming together around biomedical technology, big data, or energy research. The casual contact and collaboration of people across disciplines in a place like Bell Labs seems a far cry from our often siloed universities. But who can afford to create such an entity? Microsoft? Apple? Google? What is also clear, though, from this account was the pivotal role Mervyn Kelly played in recognizing and deploying incredibly intelligent and talented people to pursue challenging questions. There was a human factor that money and space alone cannot replace.

Whether such an enterprise, perhaps in a new configuration could develop is an interesting question. I wonder if today, it will be a network of enterprises and researchers working on related questions. Whatever is the case, The Idea Factory might be required reading for understanding the milieu in which innovation thrives. ( )
  BobonBooks | Aug 25, 2016 |
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Where is the knowledgewe have lost in information?

--T. S. Eliot, The Rock
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For Liz, Emmy, and Ben
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The first thing they tended to notice about Mervin Kelly was his restlessness.
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This work highlights achievements of Bell Labs as a leading innovator, exploring the role of its highly educated employees in developing new technologies while considering the qualities of companies where innovation and development are most successful. The author shows how Bell Labs served as an incubator for scientific innovation from the 1920s through the 1980s. In its heyday, Bell Labs boasted nearly 15,000 employees, 1,200 of whom held PhDs and 13 of whom won Nobel Prizes. And at its heart this is a story about a small group of brilliant and eccentric men including Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Thriving in a work environment that embraced new ideas, Bell Labs scientists introduced concepts that still propel many of today's most exciting technologies. 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 telephony, 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. -- Publisher description.

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