The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
By Jon Gertner (2012)
“Invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced.”
See also “The Death Of Corporate Research Labs” (David Rosenthal).
They invented: the transistor, the laser, radio astronomy, the solar cell, information theory, cellular networking, communications satellites…
And the Picturephone 🤦♀️
According to Irwin Dorros, one of the Bell Labs executives involved in the launch, the team working on the Picturephone had never doubted its eventual success. “Groupthink,” as Dorros puts it, had infiltrated the endeavor.
They were many:
At the peak of its reputation in the late 1960s, Bell Labs employed about fifteen thousand people, including some twelve hundred PhDs.
Excellence in hiring. Talent nurtured from a young age.
A snowball effect of one discovery or invention needing other solutions and an accruing effect of small discoveries over time leading to bigger things.
The solution to a technological problem invariably created other problems that needed solutions.
Cross-pollination of different fields (e.g., maths and materials) and areas like pure research and engineering.
Letting scientists go off course; autonomy.
At the time, low-hanging fruit.
John Pierce’s list:
- A technically competent management all the way to the top 💡
- Researchers didn’t have to raise funds
- Research on a topic or system could be and was supported for years
- Research could be terminated without damning the researcher 💡
You see, out of fourteen people in the Bell Laboratories, only one is in the Research Department, and that’s because pursuing an idea takes, I presume, fourteen times as much effort as having it.