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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. The war made the benefits of supporting basic science clear. It was Kelly again who realized that the future of innovation lay in electronics. To this end he moved Bell from its initial location in New York City to an expansive wooded field in New Jersey near Murray Hill and recruited even more brilliant physicists, chemists and engineers. This added further fuel to the fire of innovation started in the 1930s, and from then on the laboratory never looked back.

Secondly, Gertner gives a terrific account of the people who populated the buildings in Murray Hill and their discoveries which immortalized the laboratory. Kelly instituted a policy of hiring only the best minds, and it did not matter whether these were drawn from industry, academia or the government. In some cases he would go to great lengths to snare a particularly valuable scientist, offering lucrative financial incentives along with unprecedented freedom to explore ideas. This led to a string of extraordinary discoveries which Gertner describes in rich and accessible detail. One feature of the book that stands out is Gertner's efforts in describing the actual science instead of skimming over it; for instance he pays due attention to the revolution in materials chemistry that was necessary for designing semiconductor devices. The sheer number of important things Bell scientists discovered or invented beggars belief; even a limited but diverse sampling includes the first transatlantic cable, transistors, UNIX, C++, photovoltaic cells, error-corrected communication, charged-coupled devices and statistical process control that now forms the basis of the six-sigma movement. The scientists were a fascinating, diverse lot and Gertner brings a novelist's eye in describing them. There was Bill Shockley, the undoubtedly brilliant, troubled, irascible physicist whose sin of competing against his subordinates led to his alienation at the lab. Gertner provides a fast-paced account of those heady days in 1947 when John Bardeen, Brittain and Shockley invented the transistor, the truly world-changing invention that is Bell Labs's greatest claim to fame. Then there was Claude Shannon, the quiet, eccentric genius who rode his unicycle around the halls and invented information theory which essentially underlies the entire modern digital world. Described also are Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, whose work with an antenna that was part of the first communications satellite - also built by Bell - led to momentous evidence supporting the Big Bang. The influence of the laboratory was so formative that even the people who left Bell Labs later went on to greatness; several of these such as future energy secretary Steven Chu joined elite academic institutions and won Nobel Prizes (Bardeen won two). It's quite clear that the cast of characters that passed through the institution will probably never again be concentrated in one place.

But perhaps the most valuable part of the book deals not with the great scientific personalities or their discoveries but with the reasons that made Bell tick. When Kelly moved the lab to Murray Hill, he designed its physical space in ways that would have deep repercussions for productive thought and invention. Most crucially, he interspersed the basic and applied scientists together without any separation. That way even the purest of mathematicians was forced to interact with and learn from the most hands-on engineer. This led to an exceptional cross-fertilization of ideas, an early precursor of what we call multidisciplinary research. Labs and offices were divided by soundproof steel partitions that could be moved to expand and rearrange working spaces. The labs were all lined along a very long, seven-hundred foot corridor where everybody worked with their doors open. This physical layout ensured that when a scientist or engineer walked to the cafeteria, he or she would "pick up ideas like a magnet picks up iron filings". Other rules only fed the idea factory. For instance you were not supposed to turn away a subordinate if he came to ask you for advice. This led to the greenest of recruits learning at the feet of masters like Bardeen or Shannon. Most importantly, you were free to pursue any idea or research project that you wanted, free to ask anyone for advice, free to be led where the evidence pointed. Of course this extraordinary freedom was made possible by the immense profits generated by the monopolistic AT&T, but the heart of the matter is that Bell's founders recognized the importance of focusing on long-term goals rather than short-term profits. They did this by gathering bright minds under one roof and giving them the freedom and time to pursue their ideas. And as history makes clear, this policy led not only to fundamental discoveries but to practical inventions greatly benefiting humanity. Perhaps some of today's profitable companies like Google can lift a page from AT&T and channel more of their profits into basic, broadly defined, curiosity-driven research.

Gertner's highly readable book leaves us with a key message. As America struggles to stay competitive in science and technology, Bell Labs still provides the best example of what productive industrial research can accomplish. There are many lessons that modern organizations can learn from it. One interesting lesson arising from the cohabitation of research and manufacturing under the same roof is that it might not be healthy beyond a point to isolate one from the other, a caveat that bears directly on current offshoring policies. It is important to have people involved in all aspects of R&D talking to each other. But the greatest message of all from the story of this remarkable institution is simple and should not be lost in this era of short-term profits, layoffs and declining investment in fundamental research: the best way to generate ideas still is to hire the best minds, put them all in one place and give them the freedom, time and money to explore, think and innovate. You will be surprised how much long-term benefit you get from that policy. As they say, mighty trees from little acorns grow, and it's imperative to nurture those little seeds.
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on March 19, 2012
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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on April 26, 2013
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."

This conclusion is frankly a significant over-reach, if not just out right wrong, since it is posited without any basis in fact contained within the book. The author never really looks at the many other parts of the Lab, the tens of thousands who worked on miniscule parts of large systems. The R&D group at Murray Hill was but a tiny part of an enterprise whose overall goal was to ensure the monopoly that AT&T had been granted by the Federal Government and to maximize the profit made in that monopoly.

To understand one must recognize that in the old Bell System profit was defined as a return on investment, meaning the invested plant. Revenue thus equaled expense, plus depreciation plus that profit construct; namely the company could charge whatever it wanted to subject to the regulators limited control. The game was thus to maximize profit, which in turn meant to maximize the invested plant, and not to be maximally efficient in a competitive sense, there was no competition. Understanding the ground rules of the old Bell System is essential to the understanding of Bell Labs. No other company, save perhaps the power utilities, functioned in such a manner. This was the basis of the world view of the Labs, a world of monopolistic control.

But the "creative destruction" of the free market did begin to surround the Labs. It surrounded the Labs in the areas in which the author appears paradoxically to make them most successful. Let me discuss just three examples.

Satellite Communications: The author speaks glowingly of Pierce and his vision of satellite communications. Yet Pierce wanted dozens of low orbit satellites, apparently driven by his desire to have low time delay for voice. He wrote a paper which appeared in Scientific American proselytizing the idea. Based upon that proposal, COMSAT was formed and capitalized based upon a need for this massive investment not only in space segment but also in the complex tracking earth stations. A few days after the COMSAT IPO Hal Rosen and his team at Hughes launched Syncom I, the first synchronous satellite. Within weeks they launched Syncom II. Synchronous satellites provided global coverage with only three satellites, not the dozens demanded by Pierce's world view. COMSAT was then off with its own satellite, Intelsat 1 and its progeny using not Pierce, but Rosen. Somehow this minor fact is missing from the book.

Digital Switching: Fred Kappel was the Chairman of AT&T in the 60s during the time of the development of the first Electronic Switching System, the No 1 ESS. This system was developed by people such as Ray Ketchledge and others. They had deployed a computer based system, albeit still with analog mechanical switches called Fereeds. Fereeds were small mechanical switches that clicked and clacked. The Fereeds made the new computer elements be the dog still wagged by this old technological tail cross-connection technology. Kappel wanted an all-digital switch and the Labs kept putting him off. But at the time he had another card up his sleeve. AT&T also owned Bell Canada and their Bell Labs entity called Bell Northern Research. So off he went and got them to build the all-digital switch. The entity doing it became Northern Telecom, NORTEL. NORTEL subsequently became a major switch supplier of their new and better switches to the Operating Companies. Thus, in a true sense, Kappel used the entrepreneurial spirit of the Canadians to do what the mass of people at Bell Labs would not do.

The Internet: Now in the mid-1970s the ARPA net was in early development and some of the basic principles were evolving from Government, Academia, and a bunch of small start-up companies like Linkabit and BB&N. ARPA, the DOD advanced research arm had an office called IPTO and they wanted to expand the Internet more aggressively using the public telephone network. Yet since AT&T was a monopoly they somehow had to co-opt AT&T to agree. A first step was to go to a meeting at Murray Hill and seek their support. So off go a couple of folks from ARPA and in Murray Hill they met the standard Bell System meeting of a few dozen people. The senior person, a VP I was told, began to lecture them that if they wanted this accomplished just send them the money and they would deliver what they felt was the correct design. The ARPA folks walked away somewhat aghast and immediately reached the conclusion that they would develop what became the Internet, totally independent of AT&T. This was, in a sense, the final straw since it sowed, in my opinion, the seeds for AT&T's ultimate destruction, not the Judge Greene breakup.

The author, in my opinion, misses many other R&D entities which had a significant role in the evolution of technology, oftentimes well exceeding Bell Labs. Let me discuss just a few:

MIT Rad Lab: At the beginning of WW II Vannevar Bush set out to establish a center for R&D focusing on radar. Bell Labs had tried to capture this jewel but Bush wanted a more innovative and competitive center and as such he chose MIT and from that came the Rad Lab. The Rad Lab was composed of engineers, but they were drawn from many places and the best part was that when the war was over they went back to those many places. The Rad Lab designed radar but radar had the same elements as communications, and specifically digital communications. Thus from the Rad Lab came such innovations as the modem, designed by Jack Harrington, to interconnect signals from distributed sites. From the Rad Labs came rapidly effected engineering systems, and the terms system is critical, because the parts all worked together. From the Rad Labs came a set of book, the Rad Lab Series, which became the bible for engineers who entered the wireless world and the digital age. The Rad Lab was a petri dish that bred hundreds of engineers who went forth and created the core "startups" in the Cambridge 128 areas and also in Silicon Valley.

DoD Design Companies: It is well known that many of the transistor companies were driven by the demands of DOD. Also many of these same types of companies in Silicon Valley and in the 128 Corridor were driven by DOD money as well. Groups of engineers educated from the Rad Lab type entities of WW II came out and started small companies fed from the DOD demands in those days. It allowed for many bright engineers to experience the "startup" albeit at the Government trough.

This this book has strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are:

1. A well written story of some of the key players in Bell Labs.

2. A well described evolution of the development of the management techniques.

3. An excellent discussion of some of the major personalities in the R&D world at the time.

Its weaknesses however should be considered when taking the author's conclusions to heart. Namely:

1. This is truly a tale written from the perspective of Bell Labs. It totally fails to consider the competitors and thus when reaching his conclusion the author does so without any basis in fact. He totally ignores the weaknesses of such a system as Bell Labs and moreover he fails to consider the alternative entities such as the Rad Lab and its offshoots. In my opinion this is the major failing of this book. It would have been much more credible and useful if the author had looked at Bell Labs in the context of the total environment; the strengths and weaknesses and the competitors and alternative models of research.

2. The monopolistic structure of AT&T was a major driver for what people do and why. The issue of return on investment being the profit, and not revenue less expenses, is a true distortion of what is done and why. This idea of a world view is a formidable force. It molded what the Labs and AT&T did and why they did it. The author seems to be totally devoid of any notion of its import.

3. There were many failures at Bell Labs, and those failures were never truly perceived by those within the system, and it was this blind spot that in my opinion also led to its downfall. The author missed a great opportunity to follow up on this. Instead we see all these Herculean minds making great successes and yet the system collapses.

4. Bell Labs was enormous in size and scope at its high point. I had spent time at Holmdel, Whippany, Indian Hill, Andover and even a brief stint at the remains of West Street. Yet the focus is on Murray Hill and a small part of a small part. This is especially disturbing in light of the author's global conclusion which is reached without a single discussion of these areas. To do Bell Labs justice one must perforce covers these as well. The Pierce, Shockley and Shannon tales are told again and again, but the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of others over the decades are still silent. In the presentation by the author before a mostly former Ball Labs group it was clear that my observation on this point had substantial merit.

Overall there is a significant story to be told but this author does not accomplish it. In fact the author's statement denigrating the entrepreneur and the process of "creative destruction" is made without any attempt to understand the difference between a monopolistic structure and competitive markets. Perhaps if we had kept the old paradigm we would still have our black rotary dial phones.
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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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VINE VOICEon July 3, 2012
Anyone interested in science and technology can hardly be ignorant of Bell Labs. Discoveries like the structure of the transistor and the presence of universal background radiation are key moments in 20th century progress. Still, the stories behind these leaps forward are often less well-known than they deserve to be. Fortunately, Mr. Gertner has written an excellent book to fill in the gaps and tell so much more.

Born in the 1920's to solve specific problems for the phone company, it is easy to forget how important an aspect that was to most of the scientists at Bell Labs. In its early years these men developed solutions for sending long distance phone calls across the country and, eventually, around the world. The cables, amplifiers, and vacuum tubes they developed were meant not only to improve phone service but also last for decades without breaking down. Their incredible push for quality control would influence corporations around the world.

Ultimately more important, however, was the processes put in place to allow the best scientists freedom to discover. Everything from trolling colleges for the best graduates to designing laboratory spaces to encourage collaboration to giving opportunities for scientists to follow their own interests would lead an incredible series of steps forward: the aforementioned transistor and radio telescope as well as solar panels, satellites, lasers, cellular phone structure, computer technology and more. (There were failures as well, of course; notably, the Picturephone, where the marketing failures would presage AT&T's struggles when it was no longer a monopoly.)

The story is inherently fascinating, but Mr. Gertner deserves a lot of credit for making a very readable book. The best aspect is how he tells the story through its people and places. A number of small-town boys like Mervin Kelly and the great minds to follow--Bill Shockley, Walter Brattain, Claude Shannon, for example--get plenty of attention from Gertner. Their interactions and personalities are the driving force behind the discoveries. He also describes the legendary sites like the West Street building, Murray Hill, and Holmdel and how they contributed to the success of those who worked there.

Somehow, the work done at Bell Labs is simultaneously among the best/worst known pieces of scientific history. Perhaps because their work was done under the auspices of a corporation it has been somewhat passed over. Mr. Gertner has done a real service by bringing this important slice of history to public attention.
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on March 27, 2012
This is a great beginning for someone trying to understand the history of the preeminent research lab of the 20th century. It tells the story of the lab by following the most important innovations and inventors. And when it does that it does well.

Where the book falls down when it requires a historian not a magazine writer. During the cold war good number of Bell Labs inventions were funded and at times cover stories, for intelligence agency projects (i.e. the Echo balloon, the TWT, Baker Report, ABM systems, etc.) Because communication research was a great cover for Electronic and Signals Intelligence as well as cryptography, Bell Labs researchers and executives were integral part of the CIA/NSA infrastructure. Not understanding how tightly integrated their contributions were miss a key part of what the labs did. Bell Labs wasn't just the phone companies research center.

Finally, when trying to make sense of it all, the last chapter simply rambles. Basic research as was done in Bell Labs doesn't occur in startups. And it's comparison falls flat. Instead, not even mentioned is that U.S. government funding of basic research is the envy of the world. The National Science Foundation funds $6 billion/year of basic research. Add to that the basic medical research of the National Institute of Health, and the other research dollars from the Department of Energy and you get a country spending 10's of billions on basic research. We've evolved a system where the government funds basic research and risk capital (i.e. venture capital in Silicon Valley) doing applied engineering. Comparing that to the Bell Labs model would have been a great chapter to conclude with.

Still, even with these flaws I learned a lot. A great edition to my technical history shelf and kudos to the author.
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on March 24, 2012
Michiko Kakutani was not kidding when she called this book "riveting" in her New York Times review last week. The Idea Factory is a compelling page-turner. As someone with no connection to Bell Labs, I came at this book knowing nothing of the history and not much more about the accomplishments of the institution. However, living and working in Silicon Valley, I was intrigued to find out more about this very different hotbed of innovation and intellect than the one I know, and Gertner's book does not disappoint. While combining an incredibly well-researched history of Bell Labs with a fascinating bio of the key personalities who founded and drove arguably the most important discoveries of the 20th century, Gertner's book could not be more timely. As we think about the path forward in the valley and in the U.S. in general, the history of Bell Labs is full of ideas waiting to be applied immediately -- they seem newer and fresher (despite being generations old) than so much of the noise passing as brilliance today.
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on April 22, 2012
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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on January 20, 2013
I spent most of my technical career at Bell labs between the late sixties until the mid-nineties. Over half of that time I worked in the fundamental research area and the other half a mixture of government contract work and administrative work. Virtually all the people detailed in this book who were still around when I started were known to me and one or two I at least crossed paths with personally. In particular, I began my career working directly for Bill Pfann for a number of years, a wonderful man and brilliant materials scientist, in further adapting his Nobel-quality work ( unfortunately there is no Nobel prize for Materials Research!) to mixed metallic as well as organic compounds. It is no exaggeration to say that if it were not for Pfann's breakthroughs in purifying semiconductors and developing techniques for accurate levels of doping, no transistor would ever have gone past the laboratory experimental phase.

To the extent that the author traces the Lab's beginnings and the dozen or so major players both in their scientific and engineering contributions as well as their later equally valuable administrative achievements it is an excellent, detailed ( often a bit more detail than the reader really needs to have) and well-researched history. The shortcoming is that the author concentrates so extensively (essentially exclusively) on these dozen or so "superstars" he has left no time or space for even a fair sampling of many of the "second-tier" scientists and engineers, those whose brilliant work never got Nobel Prize headlines but without whose contributions no "superstar" discoveries would have progressed beyond initial theoretical curiosities. My own work represented a very, very modest level of achievement compared to the many outstanding people I had the privilege and pleasure to work with. I missed not reading something about the many people whose exciting work all around me made coming to work every day a bright prospect.

For those who are content with the big picture, this is the book to read. But for those of us who labored alongside the many inspired, unsung colleagues we shared that environment with, and for those who understand that scientific and technical achievment is impossible without the essential and dedicated support and ideas of the many who work with, and for, the select few, the full story of the Bell Labs culture and camaraderie has yet to be written.

May I say to all those folks - thanks guys -it was a pleasure.
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on May 2, 2012
It seems to me that the complaints about Jon Gertner's "The Idea Factory Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation come from technical people who either knew much of this information and assume that the rest of the world does too. That all of those amazing inventions came from one place...owned by AT&T, a favoite villain for many readers,was absolutely news to me and I was fascintated that the writer was able to gather all of this information at this late date and put it on record for historical reason if no other.. But I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of the eccetric characters and their eccentric lives and salute Mr, Gertner for sticking with the research for all those long years and coming up winth a very readable and valuable history. I was around while all of this was happening but had no idea of the collection of creators and thinkers in one big compound in New Jersey. It was a revelation to me.It is information I am pleased to have scquired and stored for futnre refernce Mr. Gertner is a thorough researcher and talented historian. And his book was fun to read.
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