The Idea Factory
Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
By Jon Gertner
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594203282, 432pp.)
Publication Date: March 15, 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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The definitive history of America’s greatest incubator of innovation, the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies, including the integrated circuit, the communications satellite and the cell phone.
From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs—officially, the research and development wing of AT&T—was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, it’s hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn’t been touched by Bell Labs.
Why did so many transformative ideas come from Bell Labs? In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century’s most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men—Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker—who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Their job was to research and develop the future of communications. Small-town boys, childhood hobbyists, oddballs: they give the lie to the idea that Bell Labs was a grim cathedral of top-down command and control.
Gertner brings to life the powerful alchemy of the forces at work behind Bell Labs inventions, teasing out the intersections between science, business, and society. He distills the lessons that abide: how to recruit and nurture young talent; how to organize and lead fractious employees; how to find solutions to the most stubbornly vexing problems; how to transform a scientific discovery into a marketable product, then make it even better, cheaper, or both. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.
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 currently an editor at Fast Company magazine. He lives in New Jersey, with his wife and two children.
“[F]illed 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
“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
“[F]ascinating history…the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.”—Slate Book Review
“[A]n expansive new history…does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.”—Wired.com
“Gertner provides a view of American research and development that will take engineers, scientists, and managers back to the golden age of invention in the U.S…. Gertner follows these odd and brilliant thinkers to the end of Bell Labs in the 1980s and to their own ends, providing readers with insight into management, creativity, and engineering that remain applicable today.”—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Remarkably well researched, lucidly written."—The Seattle Times
“Gertner handles the experimentation descriptions with elegance and clarity, while proving even more engaging with his profiles of leading Bell lights.”—Newark Star Ledger
"Gertner reveals the complicated humanity at work behind the scenes and provides unprecedented insight on some of history's most important scientific and technological advances. Packed with anecdotes and trivia and written in clear and compelling prose, this story of a cutting-edge and astonishingly robust intellectual era—and one not without its controversies and treachery—is immensely enjoyable.”—Kirkus