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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation Paperback – February 26, 2013
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“Filled 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
“Fascinating history . . . the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.” — Slate Book Review
“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
“An expansive new history . . . does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.” — Wired.com
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 an editor at Fast Company magazine. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.
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I am in awe of the brilliance of these men and women and I absolutely loved the book. A trip down memory lane for me!! Thank you!
My only beef is that I'm a little spoiled now. I haven't come across a book in the last few weeks that compares. I'm sure I will, eventually, but when a book leaves you dissatisfied with most of the books that follow, then you know it was a pretty good book.
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.
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.