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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation Hardcover – March 15, 2012


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; 1ST edition (March 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203288
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203282
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (197 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

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Customer Reviews

Well researched and well written.
John L. Gregory
I think this will be a wonderful book for anyone of any age, whether the reader wants to relive their past or learn from something that happened before their time.
Mirrani
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in technology.
Robert D. Croucher

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

149 of 156 people found the following review helpful By A. Jogalekar VINE VOICE on 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 By Ishaan Dang on March 19, 2012
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 By Book Fanatic TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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51 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Bob Metzler on April 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From the description, I had expected more. Bell Labs was the great R&D organization for many decades and I thought that knowing more details and stories about them would be fun since my career was in technology. The author concentrates more on the managers than the scientists and engineers & that makes pretty dry reading. Also, the author is clearly not a technical person and while he doesn't get the technology descriptions exactly wrong, they're not exactly right, either. I finally bailed out with a couple of chapters still to go.
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