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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation Kindle Edition
|Length: 448 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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Two complaints: too wordy and minuscule coverage of Unix and the C language. The author at one point speaks Unix as a programming language. Unix is the software foundation of the internet; deserves a little more ink.
Bell Labs was a technology incubator such as we won't see again. Brilliant minds given freedom and resources. This book shows us the human side of these giants. Sometimes a glorious destiny, and occasionally an ignominious crash.
The majority of the book dwells on the historical narrative and the seemingly endless string of pivotal inventions, weaving in character sketches of their inventors. Many of these stories are mini-adventures in and of themselves: the invention of the transistor or the launching of the first successful communications satellite, for example. In delving into the exploits of dozens of Bell engineers and theoreticians over the decades it becomes clear that Gertner has really done his homework, digging up lots of insider anecdotes from surviving staff members, their colleagues and relatives. All of these sketches add up to a series of clues about the Labs' success.
With the blessing of the US government, AT&T, Bell Labs' parent company, was operated as a monopoly for decades. Flush with the revenue from the nation's millions of telephone subscribers, it had an enormously deep bank roll and could afford to finance fundamental research that was unlikely to lead to useful products in the near-term. This is the kind of research regime that usually only national governments can afford to pursue. Research investment with a long time horizon tends to generate lots of ideas which go nowhere. But when you throw a thousand darts at a target, the likelihood that one of them will be a bullseye is pretty good. Bell Labs scored a lot of bullseyes.
Another contributor to their success was the quality of the talent that they hired and the atmosphere of intellectual freedom that their management deliberately created. It's not unlike a giant research university, but a university in which all of the researchers are working towards a common goal: making communications more efficient. If that means materials science research, chemistry research or investigations into the nascent field of solid state physics, as long as there was a connection to communications and an eventual payoff, all sorts of pursuits could be funded.
One interesting little tangent covered is the failure of the PicturePhone, the world's first desk top video conferencing system. The technology to make such a service feasible actually existed in the late 1960s and several pilot systems were installed but the systems were never successful. It's not that the technology was difficult to use or that it was unreliable, it' s just that it was a solution to a need that didn't exist. Customers were perfectly happy to be invisible when conversing on the phone. Even AT&T could make a significant misstep.
In the end, despite its illustrious history of invention, Bell Laboratories became a victim of both its own success and changing economic times. AT&T struggled to hold on to its monopoly status for decades and managed to dodge the bullet many times in the early and mid 20th century, but by the time the 1970s arrived, government officials were less inspired to see telephony as a system requiring absolute uniformity under the control of a single master. Second, Bell Labs had so perfected the art of high-speed, high-volume, high-reliability communication that it had little room left to pioneer ground-breaking technologies. Telecommunications were born and matured to adulthood under AT&T's protective wing for a hundred years. The forced breakup of the Bell system all but guaranteed the dissolution and slow fade of the once mighty Bell Laboratories.
I should say that I came to this book with a curiosity not about phones and early phone technology, but about creative working groups. This book is an excellent study of just such a working group, showing that with space and collaboration, so much can be accomplished.