Book Review: Idea Factory, the history of Bell Labs

Yea, I know I’ve just been doing book reviews.

This book was amazing. I had no idea of all the different things that Bell Labs produced from the mid 1920’s until the 1970’s and later. The book focused on the high point of Bell Labs innovation run. It followed the career of several, at the time, famous and prominent scientists that were employed at Bell Labs. Please such as Mervin Kelley (vastly improve the vacuum tube and was a long running director, VP and President of the Labs), William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) Brattian (inventor of a different kind of transistor), Claude Shannon (inventor of the field of Information Science), John Pierce (inventor of passive and active satellite). These there were many others, however, they each had significant impacts on how our modern society works.

The book does an excellent job in explaining some of the basics of how the research was conducted, what work needed to be done to make it work on an experimental level, the method of transferring the invention into innovation or a full product and the goal of each of these inventions. Mervin Kelley was famous for saying that to implement a change in AT&T’s network the new technology must be “better or cheaper or both.” This prevented a great deal of frivolous technologies from being implemented into the telephone network. Additionally, this was required to ensure that AT&T was always able to work towards reducing rates for subscribers as they were a “natural” monopoly.

This was a time when research was done to ensure that the network would be operational for 30 years without malfunction. This required huge investments in quality control and required that additional costs were built into the network for redundancies and protection. In fact Statistical Process Control was invented at Bell Labs to ensure proper quality.

How did all of this work? Well, there were two factors going on here. First, Bell Labs was able to hire the best and brightest to work on interesting problems. Second, the scientists had a continually evolving project that always needed more innovation. These two combined with a freedom to explore allowed the scientists to delve into basic and applied research. In some cases they did not know how or why something would work, but felt that it would improve the quality of the telephone network.

One of the goals of AT&T was to create a coast to coast network with universal service. This required the company to figure out how to address signal decay due to distances over several miles. To address this the company developed the vacuum tube repeater, which significantly increased the distance a voice call could travel. The manufacturing of a tube was extremely difficult and expensive. Bell Labs felt that there had to be a different way to create a repeater. Over the next 20 years they investigated off and on (with a break for WWII) how to make semiconductors work as a repeater. Bell Labs was capable of making this sort of investment because it had a guaranteed revenue stream and a mandate to continually improve the network. These two together allowed the Labs to do work that they otherwise would not have been able to investigate.

This is a very different model for innovation than we currently have in any organization. Universities come close, but they fall short in the fact that the professors are continually required to apply for more money and seek permission from someone to pursue their work. Bell Labs was much more relaxed about this.

This innovation method is also very different than some of the historic events in the US, such as the Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing. Those were single goals which allowed the focus of a great group of minds.There was never any intention of keeping those minds together for the next big project. Bell Labs had the ability to do this.

There are some organizations that should be able to do something like this. The National Labs are one, but there’s no direct business need so even this doesn’t exactly work. An organization like TNO in the Netherlands, which focuses more on practical matters could increase the amount of basic research they conduct in various different areas. TNO is structured differently than the National Labs in the US, because they are expected to work closely with both industry and universities. This gives each of the groups a strong business focus and could serve as a pipeline from basic research into business activities for the companies that work with TNO. However, at this point TNO does not perform these activities.

I give this book a 4.5/5. It was extremely well written, well organized and dealt with some amazing subject matters.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Idea Factory, the history of Bell Labs

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