It was an incredible idea: gather together as many really smart people as possible and set them to work on discovering the essential nature of things. At least, it was an incredible idea around the time of Pythagoras, or the time of the House of Wisdom, or any time anyone else had it. The unusual thing about Bell Labs was that it was done under the auspices of a private company – a regulated monopoly – with a vague idea that knowing how things work on a very fundamental level would somehow help AT&T do things better, cheaper or both, a running theme of the book.
Semiconductors? Check. Transistors? Check. ‘Lasers’? Check. Satellites? Computers? Mobile telephony? Check, check, check. Information theory? Guess what. It’s not true to say that these things wouldn’t have been developed without the Bell Labs (ideas have their time, and someone else – or even, possibly, the same people – would have got there soon enough), but if you measure success by Nobel Prizes, and why wouldn’t you, the Bell Labs was one of the most successful endeavours ever.
Gertner traces the 60-year history of the labs, from its foundation in the 1920s to its gradual watering-down as competitors to Ma Bell emerged in the 1980s by looking at the lives of some of the characters who made it so. (My only trouble with the book was remembering who was who. Was he the transistor guy? No, he’s the supervisor, isn’t he?)
There are two tracks to the story: the inventions themselves (covered well, giving just enough science for intelligent duffers like me to understand what’s going on) and the politics of the whole company (much of the history can only really be understood through a prism of ‘they had to do this so the Government wouldn’t do that’), both of which kept me fascinated throughout.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation is a good read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in how the modern world got this way.
A selection of other posts
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