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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation [Kindle Edition]

Jon Gertner
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (219 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $18.00
Kindle Price: $11.84
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Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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Book Description

From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs-officially, the research and development wing of AT&T-was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century's most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men-Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker-who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.


Editorial Reviews

Review

“[F]illed with colorful characters and inspiring lessons...The Idea Factory explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation?”—Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review



“Riveting… 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 — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times




“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.”—The Boston Globe



“Compelling… Gertner's book offers fascinating evidence for those seeking to understand how a society should best invest its research resources.”—The Wall Street Journal



“[F]ascinating history…the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.”—Slate Book Review



“[A]n expansive new history…does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.”—Wired.com



“Gertner provides a view of American research and development that will take engineers, scientists, and managers back to the golden age of invention in the U.S…. Gertner follows these odd and brilliant thinkers to the end of Bell Labs in the 1980s and to their own ends, providing readers with insight into management, creativity, and engineering that remain applicable today.”—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)



"Remarkably well researched, lucidly written."—The Seattle Times



“Gertner handles the experimentation descriptions with elegance and clarity, while proving even more engaging with his profiles of leading Bell lights.”—Newark Star Ledger



"Gertner reveals the complicated humanity at work behind the scenes and provides unprecedented insight on some of history's most important scientific and technological advances. Packed with anecdotes and trivia and written in clear and compelling prose, this story of a cutting-edge and astonishingly robust intellectual era—and one not without its controversies and treachery—is immensely enjoyable.”—Kirkus

About the Author

Jon Gertner grew up in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey—just a few hundred yards away from Bell Labs. He has been a writer for the New York Times Magazine since 2004 and is currently an editor at Fast Company magazine. He lives in New Jersey, with his wife and two children.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1761 KB
  • Print Length: 446 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1594203288
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (March 15, 2012)
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143122797
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143122791
  • ASIN: B005GSZIWG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #62,171 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
(219)
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
157 of 164 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life and times of a great American institution March 15, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
During its fifty odd years of existence, Bell Labs was the most productive scientific laboratory on the planet. It won seven Nobel Prizes, contributed innumerable practical ideas underlying our modern way of life and, whether by accident or design, also managed to make some spectacular basic scientific discoveries that expanded our understanding of the universe. How did it possibly accomplish all this? In this authoritative and intensely engaging book, Jon Gertner tells us exactly how.

Gertner's book about this great American institution excels in three ways. Firstly, it describes in detail the genesis of what was then an unlikely research institution. Until then most communication related work was considered to be squarely within the domain of engineering. Bell Labs arose from a need to improve communications technology pioneered by its parent organization AT&T. But the real stroke of genius was to realize the value that basic scientists - mainly physicists and chemists - could bring to this endeavor along with engineers. This was largely the vision of two men - Frank Jewett and Mervin Kelly. Jewett who was the first president of Bell Labs had the foresight to recruit promising young physicists who were proteges of his friend Robert Millikan, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and president of Caltech. Kelly in turn was Millikan's student and was probably the most important person in the history of the laboratory. It was Kelly who hired the first brilliant breed of physicists and engineers including William Shockley, Walter Brittain, Jim Fisk and Charles Townes and who would set the agenda for future famous discoveries. During World War II Bell gained a reputation for taking on challenging military projects like radar; at the end of the war it handled almost a thousand of these.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Fast Company editor Gertner traces the history of Bell Labs through more than five decades of brilliant thinking and innovation. From the transistor to lasers to satellites and cellular technology, Bell Labs and its scientists invented machines and techniques that were consistently prescient, and ultimately presaged all of modern communications. Housed first in New York City and then on a sprawling campus in New Jersey, Bell Labs became a haven for creative and technical minds due to a unique culture of encouraged interdisciplinary research, (mostly) friendly competition and inspired leadership. Tremendously complex ideas (information theory) and intensely experimental accomplishments (fiber optics) were possible in part because of the unrivaled freedom, time and funding Bell Labs provided. In addition, pressing social, political and economic issues provided necessary infrastructures for advances in engineering and mechanics. The author describes the atmosphere as welcoming creativity rather than insisting on rigid development; intellectually, there was an indistinct line between art and science. By tracing the history of Bell Labs through the biographies of several of its founding thinkers, including Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley and Claude Shannon, Gertner reveals the complicated humanity at work behind the scenes and provides unprecedented insight on some of history's most important scientific and technological advances. Packed with anecdotes and trivia and written in clear and compelling prose, this story of a cutting-edge and astonishingly robust intellectual era--and one not without its controversies and treachery--is immensely enjoyable.
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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book About an Amazing Place and Time March 15, 2012
Format:Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. It's a history/biography of some of the most important innovations and people who came out of Bell Labs during its peak in the middle to latter part of the 20th Century. Gertner does a good job of story telling and I found the book fascinating and a little sad at the same time. It is not likely something like this will be repeated again.

If you are looking for self-help books on how to create or innovate, you won't find it here. This is a history of the labs and its people. Gertner does describe what he thinks contributes to great ideas in this book from a broad historical perspective and how it came together at Bell Labs.

If you like biographies and history or even just reading about scientific and technological achievement, I think you will love this book. It's 360 pages long and tells a great story. It's hard to believe how much our current electronic world owes to Bell Labs. These were game changing ideas and inventions, not just incremental achievements like one finds with the latest new and improved version of a device these days.

The book description above on Amazon does an excellent job of describing what is inside this book. I highly recommend you give that description and the book itself a read.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Missing Some Critical Facts April 26, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Idea Factory is a well written presentation of what happened in Bell Laboratories in its early and middle lifetime. The author has captured the view from within the Lab and has presented a history that is in many ways presented in a manner in which the Lab people would have wanted it presented. His conclusions however are subject to significant debate, if not being downright wrong.

I write this review also having heard the author present his work in Madison, NJ to an audience almost totally filled with hundreds of former Labs staff and also as one who spent a great deal of time at the Labs from 1964 through 1972, while going back and forth to MIT, plus over fifty years in the industry.

The author presents the often told tales of Shockley and the transistor, Shannon and information theory, as well as all the management types who formed, directed, and molded the Lab like Kelley and others. Many of these people I knew firsthand and as any observer the view is all too often colored by one's position at the time.

The driving presumption of the author is best stated in his introduction where he says:

"Some contemporary thinkers 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. Those idea factories of the past, and perhaps their most gifted employees, have no lessons for those of us enmeshed in today's complex world. This is too simplistic. To consider what occurred at Bell Labs, to glimpse the inner workings of its invisible and now vanished "production lines" is to consider the possibilities of what large human organizations might accomplish.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The Story of a Scientific Golden Age
In this fascinating book, the author recounts the amazing story of Bell labs – from its creation in 1925 to its present state. Read more
Published 3 days ago by G. Poirier
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and researched
Fascinating book which not only relates te Bell Labs history, but shares the thoughts of many business gurus about the past, present, and future roles of technology industries. Read more
Published 14 days ago by djinnae
5.0 out of 5 stars Made Bell Labs scope and personalities accessable.
Fascinating read. I saw an hour presentation by the author last year. Not overly technical, there is enough tech to satisfy the engineer in me; but the author's triumph was... Read more
Published 17 days ago by C. Edwards
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Interesting book that talks about Bell Labs
Published 18 days ago by David R. Hassall
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
It is a good read
Published 20 days ago by Dave
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome overview
Awesome overview if a magical place.
Published 22 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved going through it
A very thorough report of a very prestigious organization . I loved going through it .
Published 1 month ago by Premdayal G.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Good read
Published 1 month ago by ic-it
2.0 out of 5 stars INTERESTING BUT DRY-DRY-DRY
So-o-o-o-o dry.
Published 1 month ago by Morton Cohen
4.0 out of 5 stars If not for them, this Amazon review would not be written or read
This well written and fortunately, well edited book attempts the impossible to tell the technical and personal stories of how the amazing institution created the technical... Read more
Published 1 month ago by ram
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