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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation ~Jon Gertner

THE IDEA FACTORY is an incredible read, it is a powerful read; I was so excited by the title when asked would I review the book on my blog.   I thought the IDEA FACTORY was about opening up the reader’s creative ideas and creating opportunities, rather it is a work of History.

The book does excite the creative juices and get one to do some poignant thinking; it was wonderful to fire up those skills and enjoy such a well written book.  Gertner  has  a command of words that was refreshing.   The book is about the period of history 1940s to 1970s when Bell Laboratories, Western Electric, and AT&T had a benevolent monopoly on communications in the USA, particularly as they related to the development of superior telephone service.  The innovations which came out of this monopoly are still being visited today and are creating massive amounts of new technology at an even faster pace.  The innovations that were established by the Bell Labs are the foundation of our technological world today.

Bell Laboratories wanted communications services, “the best, the fastest and the most economical” in the world.   So they went about finding bright young minds who loved the sciences and mathematics and engineering, and inventing and were CURIOUS.   Most were from rural settings and were encouraged by a teacher to find grant money and get themselves to a good school.  Then the Bell Labs set about discovering the “best among the best”, usually referred by their faculty and hiring them to create and invent and produce the equipment they needed to keep communications growing, being more successful and meeting needs.  They paid each young man $1 as they entered the work force for any patents they might develop and gave them a lab – Doors must remain open so other disciplines can wander in and get involved – they were given a problem to solve or several problems to solve.

How to get long distance services across the whole country – from coast to coast.

How to develop a cable that would survive under the ocean?

How to use a single cable to carry 1,000s of calls – clearly

These young men found each other and metallurgists, and chemists, and mechanics to start discussion groups and to problem-solve.   They wandered around and wrote on blackboards in the various labs.  They challenged each other and teased each other until a solution immerged.   The list of what they produced is amazing and the stories of how they came up with these solutions fascinating:

  • Switches
  • Cables
  • Masers to lasers
  • Water proofing
  • Transistors
  • Secret Codes for the WWII
  • Calculators
  • Computers
  • Radar
  • Microwave Antennas
  • UNIX
  • Atomic Bomb
  • CCE = Digital Photography
  • 13 Nobel Prize Winners!

Although institutions such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others have great minds working together, they are similar but not as innovative or inspiring with the new, they are creating within a niche. “….the NET is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” Nicholas Carr.

The downfall of this experiment was when they had to give up their monopoly and break apart the different sections so that they were not all working together without need for grants.  With the monopoly the BELL LABS did not have to learn how to find funds or market.  The biggest problem was that the USA downgraded education as a priority particularly math and sciences; modern society wants rules, answers, and control and thus curiosity is not encouraged.

“I just don’t think they make people like the kind of people we had; not that nature doesn’t make them just that the environment doesn’t make them.”   Dr. Lucky

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to be amazed by history and to jumpstart their curiosity.   I also enjoyed this book because it made me feel closer to my Father who was one of those brilliant, curious, intelligent young men of those times, who came from a similar background and created an education system that outshined anything else that was in existence and it came to the attention of the Kennedy family.  When President Kennedy was shot it burst the trajectory my Father was on and other people just did not have the foresight to comprehend his work, though many prestigious universities called him to teach and promoted his concepts.

I was also fascinated with the chapter about the Seattle and New York World’s Fairs as I attended both and went to the Bell Lab’s displays and house of the future.

So has anything surprised you recently and been different from your expectations?  Would you have read the book if it had turned out to not be what you expected?   Were you pleased with the outcome?

Penguin Press  and TLC book tours sent me a copy of this book and I promised them a review.

tlclogoIf you order anything from Amazon or Powell’s    I will receive a few beans in my bucket. (Kindle)

Related Reading:
Shiny Objects
The Swan Thieves
The Social Animal
The Procrastination Equation

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21 Responses to “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation ~Jon Gertner”

  1. Hilary Says:

    Hi Patricia .. sounds a very interesting book and read .. I love how history always needs a past and has a future .. creativity is part of this .. one idea will need to a spin-off, while an old forgotten idea often comes to the fore. Innovation and free thinking are great attributes to have – your father must have been extremely interesting .. history deals some bad blows, others it embraces – some are good marketers …. sadly such is life ..

    Cheers Hilary

    patricia Reply:

    I think you would love this book and how it is written. All the information about what they invented to deal with WWII and work with the British services too – people from all over the worlds were connected to these folks and only one or two became rich or outrageous…they just did what they were supposed to do to feed and nurture their curiosity…All of the highlighted folks were not from “old families with ties”!

    Thank you for coming by and commenting…having lots of computer problems…so kind of random on line right now – sorry I think I missed your last post

  2. Laurie Buchanan Says:

    “…it made me feel closer to my Father who was one of those brilliant, curious, intelligent young men of those times…”

    Patricia – Your dad sounds like he was an amazing man. It just goes to show that the nut didn’t fall very far from the tree.

    Patricia Reply:

    Thank you – you made me smile

  3. Talon Says:

    This sounds like a really neat read, Patricia. It’s incredible how much these creative thinkers accomplished simply by being exactly who they were.
    Talon recently posted..CapriccioMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    I was disappointed that it was about engineers and mathematicians when I first saw the title and then I started reading and it truly turned up my vibrational levels…such creativity and with so many disciplines and so many projects to be worked on – it was a terrific read And they were paid to be exactly who they were – how awesome is that

    My father was attacked so many times for being who he was…I think it finally discouraged him
    Patricia recently posted..The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation ~Jon GertnerMy Profile

  4. susan Says:

    “I just don’t think they make people like the kind of people we had; not that nature doesn’t make them just that the environment doesn’t make them.” Dr. Lucky
    This says it all to me!!! And you do not want to get me going on the entire educational system needing to be scratched,burned and gone back to the good old days when you were required to THINK your math out before using any new-fangled calculators! The days when you had to diagram sentences on a chalkboard. When Latin was taught in English class so you had a good handle on vocabulary. Oh no. You do not want to hear my rant, haha!

    There has to be some explanation for what Dr. Lucky said, don’t ya think????

    Patricia Reply:

    You have caught the essence of this book…these were all free lance young men, who had learned how to think and excelled at curiosity…

    I find a number of folks just hard to talk to or connect with these days – though they come from wealthy families and think they can do all this financial creativity with other people’s money…Oh don’t get me started

    I keep saying over and over again recently – Medicare is not an entitlement program or welfare….I paid every penny into that system on time – it is a health saving account and I intend to use it…wisely

  5. Sara Says:

    This book does sound interesting. I have a friend I think would love it.

    It is amazing what people can create, both ideas and real inventions, when they are together in a group with the sole purpose of inventing and thinking.

    I think you are right about how getting funding and money sort of puts a crimp in the creative process.

    I am sorry for what happened to your father. Creativity needs someone to fan the flames every once in awhile. It sounds more like people were determined to put out his fire. I regret this.

    This books shows what happens when people do “fan the fire” and let creative and inventive people do what they do best.

    Thank you for sharing this:~)
    Sara recently posted..Photo Challenge: Name the AnimalMy Profile

    patricia Reply:

    It is an amazing book and I was delighted to enjoy it so much.

    Yes, in the book I reviewed call NEW they said that very thing that people need the little rewards often to keep creativity alive and to keep the flow of creativity on the move. One also needs to be aware of the new and open to ideas.

    My father was an immigrant to this country and even though he was educated at Columbia University and became a citizen ( separation of church and state was a big issue for him) His Scottish accent was his announcement of his foreignness…though our Public Schools were nearly the best int he nation under his leadership.

    Yes these fellows were on fire ( women were still pretty much out of the picture)
    Thank you for coming on by…nice to find you here

  6. Roderick Says:

    I want to read this book too. Nice review on this. Thank you for sharing, I am excited to get this.
    Roderick recently posted..A Simple Intro to Choosing the Right Woodworking PlansMy Profile

    patricia Reply:

    Welcome Roderick,
    thank you for you kind words, I really liked this book and my creative juices were flowing as I read….I think you will like it very much too

  7. Karyn18 Says:

    Patricia, your post here makes me missed my father. It was very touching story. Thanks for sharing this to us. I really appreciate it.
    Karyn18 recently posted..Certificates of deposit how it worksMy Profile

  8. Davina Haisell Says:

    Sounds like a great read, Patricia.

    You’ve tweaked my interest because I’m interested in the idea of inventions. I love experimenting and developing different theories… being curious. I also loved that this book made you think of your father. Laurie’s comment made me smile too.
    Davina Haisell recently posted..It’s all right, grammatically speakingMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    this was a great read and I am so happy that I had the opportunity to explore.

    Laurie’s comment keeps me smiling too!
    I wish I were more like him…being this much and being afraid of all the attacks I witnessed ( and those are just the ones I was able to understand at an older age) is not so comforting – makes me feel guilty

    He would have loved a group effort

  9. Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours Says:

    Wow, this sounds absolutely fascinating! Most people today (myself included) are lacking that driving curiosity that led to amazing changes in technology in years past. Hopefully this book will inspire readers to dust off their curiosity and start creating!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

    Patricia Reply:

    Thanks Heather for checking up on me…I need to say that this is quite the book and so well written…

    I even have local friends who are interested in reading the book and have called to talk about my review…a new first

    That curiosity is an amazing part of life and it can so easily disappear
    Patricia recently posted..If Wishes Were HorsesMy Profile

  10. Jannie Funster Says:

    I wonder if so much computering for kids these days is taking away their creative spirit.

    And then I think… there will always be creative souls, and maybe even in think tanks.

    Bell Labs reminds me of all the stuff NASA research brought into the mainstream.

    What surprised me lately is how potent this Glade sprinkle-on carpet freshner is. I’ve used way too much and it’s too late to vacuum, I’d wake up the whole house. I might have to go sleep on the sofa, the “linen” scent is so strong.

    good nite!

    Jannie Funster recently posted..The Return Of My Coffee RoosterMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    Always a delight to find your and your good comments.
    Now that taxes are done…I need to get caught up on your posts and others…
    Yes NASA is mentioned in the Bell Labs book…

    I can not use those carpet freshner thingies – opens me up to a migraine headache….have you tried just plain baking soda?

    HOpe you had a good nites sleep :)
    Patricia recently posted..If Wishes Were HorsesMy Profile

  11. Dawn0977 Says:

    HI Patricia! this is a very interesting book to read. That is why i’m so excited to grab a copy of this book. Thanks for sharing this wonderful review to us!
    Dawn0977 recently posted..Maid jailed for killing employer’s 29 fishes including arowanasMy Profile

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