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:
- Masers to lasers
- Water proofing
- Secret Codes for the WWII
- Microwave Antennas
- 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.