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What happened to Bell Labs?

Michiko Kakutani 

In today’s world of Apple, and Facebook, the name may not ring any bells for most readers, but for decades – from the 1920s through the 1980s – Bell Labs, the research and development wing of AT&T, was the most innovative scientific organisation in the world. As Jon Gertner argues in his riveting new book, The Idea Factory, it was where the future was invented.

Indeed, Bell Labs was behind many of the innovations that have come to define modern life, including the transistor, the laser, the silicon solar cell and the computer operating system called (which would serve as the basis for a host of other computer languages). Bell Labs developed the first communications satellites, the first cellular telephone systems and the first fibre-optic cable systems.

The Bell Labs scientist Claude Elwood Shannon effectively founded the field of information theory, which would revolutionise thinking about communications; other Bell Labs researchers helped push the boundaries of physics, chemistry and mathematics, while defining new industrial processes like quality control.

In The Idea Factory, Mr Gertner – an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine – not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success but also looks at why research organisation became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

It’s clear from this volume that the visionary leadership of the researcher turned executive Mervin Kelly played a large role in Bell Labs’ sense of mission and its ability to institutionalise the process of innovation so effectively. Kelly believed that an “institute of creative technology” needed a critical mass of talented scientists – whom he housed in a single building, where physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers were encouraged to exchange ideas – and he gave his researchers the time to pursue their own investigations “sometimes without concrete goals, for years on end”.

Given the evolution of the digital world we inhabit today, Kelly’s prescience is stunning in retrospect. “He had predicted grand vistas for the postwar electronics industry even before the transistor,” Mr Gertner writes. “He had also insisted that basic scientific research could translate into astounding computer and military applications, as well as miracles within the communications systems — ‘a telephone system of the future,’ as he had said in 1951, ‘much more like the biological systems of man’s brain and nervous system’.”

Mr Gertner’s portraits of Kelly and the cadre of talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible to the lay reader.

Mr Gertner deftly puts these scientists’ work in the context of what was known at the time (and what would evolve from their initial discoveries in the decades since), even as he describes in remarkably lucid terms the steps by which one discovery led to another, as well as the process by which ideas were turned by imaginative engineers into inventions and eventually into products that could be mass-produced.

Most notably, there’s the team that would win a Nobel Prize for its work on semiconductors and the transistor: the brilliant, aggressive physicist William Shockley (later to become infamous for his unscientific views on race), who “enjoyed finding a hanging thread so he could unravel a problem with a swift, magical pull”; the soft-spoken John Bardeen, who “was content to yank away steadfastly, tirelessly, pulling on various corners of a problem until the whole thing ripped open”; and Walter Brattain, “a sceptical and talkative experimentalist” who played extrovert to Bardeen’s introvert.

Many Bell Labs scientists, including Brattain, Kelly and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles H Townes, who helped develop the principles of the laser, grew up on farms or in small towns, which Dr Townes argued were the perfect “training grounds for experimental physics”. Such childhoods, he contended, taught a person how to “pay attention to the natural world, to work with machinery and to know how to solve practical problems and fix things innovatively, with what is on hand”.

The very success of Bell Labs, he notes, contained the seeds of its destruction. Not only was it producing too many ideas for a single company to handle, but some of its innovations (like the transistor) also altered the technological landscape so much that its core business would be reduced to a mere part of the ever-expanding field of information and electronic technology — a field increasingly dominated by new rivals, with which a post-monopoly AT&T had difficulty competing.

AT&T’s original mission – to create and maintain a system of modern communications – has largely been fulfilled. And according to Mr Gertner, the current Bell Labs president, Jeong Kim, believes that the future of communications may be defined by an industry yet to be created: a business that does not simply deliver or search out information, but also somehow manages and organises the vast flood of data that threatens to overwhelm our lives.

Bell Labs and the Great Age of
American Innovation

Jon Gertner
The Penguin Press; 422 pages; $29.95

©2012 The New York Times News Service