Book Review: The Idea Factory

This book is a history of Bell Labs, true, but perhaps more accurately, this book is a history of American engineering throughout the 20th century, since 20th century American engineering was the engineering of Bell Labs. From the telegraph to the internet, the span of innovation, experimentation, and discovery captured in the offices at Brooklyn and Murray Hill easily dwarf any other institution of that era. Perhaps no other company has so thoroughly touched our lives today, creating a new paradigm in the way we define ourselves in the information era.

Such great breadth of discovery is not easy to explain, but Gertner does a masterful job of doing so by encapsulating such technologies in the identities of their creators. From the infamous Shockley to the eccentric Shannon, to the ones who are unknown in general public spheres of the 21st century, this book is essentially a collection of biographies. Yet such a description falls short of the magnitude of what had occurred. These famous engineers and scientists, who thought into existence the ways that we communicate, think, and interact, were also in a unique environment provided by the Bell Labs from the 1930s through the 1960s. This book captures the culture of that time thoroughly, from the games that engineers would play when their supervisors weren’t looking to the rare disputes between management and researcher.

A possible criticism is that the book focuses too heavily on the lives of Kelly, Shockley, Bardeen, Shannon, Fisk, Pierce, and Baker. This is entirely valid – look at the 16 page insert in the center of the book that provides beautiful black-and-white photos of these Young Turks at work in Murray Hill. Yet the picture that such biographies provide is perhaps representative of what the Bell Labs of that era represented. These men had different, sometimes conflicting, personalities, yet Bell Labs was able to draw out of them true genius. Gertner deflects this argument, stating in the conclusion that “maybe this argument – the individual versus the institution; the great men versus the yeomen; the famous versus the forgotten – is insoluble. Or … perhaps the most significant thing was that Bell Labs had both kinds of people in profusion, and both kinds working together. And for the problems it was solving, both kinds were necessary.

Our understanding of innovation in today’s world is fundamentally different from innovation at that time. Look at the primary motivations behind shocking American discoveries in the 20th century, and you will find how remarkably institutional they were. The man on the moon was a result of the Space Race between two superpowers. The Manhattan Project was a result of over 600,000 scientists, engineers, and workers combining forces to develop the most terrible weapon. Discoveries and innovations of that time were in large part supported by academic institutions, by government, or by large monopolies like the Ma Bell system. Gertner raises the point that perhaps this was one of the fatal flaws that led to the eventual collapse of the Bell Labs in the 1990s. By working in a vacuum, protected from competition through explicit promises by the government, Bell Labs never had to learn how to compete in an open marketplace. By outinventing everyone else, they eventually led to their own demise, being unable to capitalize on their new creations of satellite and internet communications as many of the new startups in Silicon Valley.

Perhaps it is for the better that Bell Labs has given way to Silicon Valley, and that we have a new wave of discovery. But I find Bell Labs, and this book, incredibly enduring for imparting the sense of community that such a research institution had at the time. Sure, it was stressful, competitive, and intensive. Yet such stresses only brought everyone to reach higher heights and think bigger than any other place on Earth.

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