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Jon Gertner's Breathtaking History of Bell Labs

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 22, 2012 10:53 AM

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In hundreds of books over the last few years, economists and historians have been trying to figure out what made post-Depression America so economically dynamic. Some books emphasize economic policy and the rise of the middle class; others look at business and innovation, trying to figure out how so many great inventions, like automobiles, air travel, telephones, and computers, became so cheap that they could raise everyone's standard of living.

Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation is one of the best innovation-focused books I've read: It's a wide-ranging, detailed, and deeply fascinating look at the New Jersey lab which has been churning out useful discoveries since the early 1900s, including the transistor (the essential ingredient in all electronic devices), the radio telescope, the theory of information, the communications satellite, the digital camera, the laser, and the UNIX operating system -- not to mention, of course, our entire modern communications infrastructure. Bell Labs invented the phone network, and then some.

The Bell Laboratories were formally created in 1925, when different engineering departments within the massive American Telephone and Telegraph Company were consolidated into one giant lab. Thousands of engineers and scientists worked on its New Jersey campus, all united in the goal of extending and perfecting the telephone network. No detail was too small, and no problem too big: Labs scientists figured out how to make telephone poles gopher-proof; invented the telephone ring (before telephones rang, Gertner explains, you shouted "Ahoy!" through the phone until someone on the other side heard you); and also explored basic scientific questions in physics, chemistry, and other fields. Scientists like William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) and Claude Shannon (inventor of information theory) were spurred on by an unending stream of practical engineering problems, like how to cram as many conversations as possible into a single phone line. In part because it was funded by an unending stream of telephone revenue, the Labs could produce innovation on a truly industrial scale. (Ironically, Gertner notes, the technologies invented there were what eventually undermined the phone company's business model.)

Today, the Bell Labs model seems anachronistic: we tend to think of innovation as flowing from small firms and entrepreneurs. But Bell Labs, Gertner argues, should stand as an important counter-example to our obsession with start-up culture. There's a difference, he believes, between the small, iterative, market-driven successes created by start-ups and the truly huge technological revolutions created by well-funded research institutes, in which scientists and engineers can work together in an open-ended, interdisciplinary way. "Some contemporary thinkers," he writes, "would lead us to believe that twenty-first-century innovation can only be accomplished by small groups of nimble, profit-seeking entrepreneurs working amid the frenzy of market competition” -- but Bell Labs, by contrast, shows how much more "large human organizations might accomplish."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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