Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in an environment where new ideas are allowed to develop and flow freely — not just as some empty policy or even a company with a “20 percent time” program as made famous by Google — but a real wellspring where ideas and innovation is the raison d'être? Just such an environment existed for most of last century, and a new book by The New York Times’ Jon Gertner offers a look into what made it thrive.
In The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (2012; The Penguin Press; ISBN 978-1-59420-328-2; price $29.95), Gertner describes what happens when “extraordinary men...were given extraordinary means — time, space, funds and access to one another.” The yield was the transistor, laser, information theory, satellites, and mobile phones, among other things, which helped shape today’s communications.

Bell Laboratories owed its existence to a very unique set of circumstances. As competition between phone companies hindered the nation’s fledgling telephone “system” in some peoples’ eyes, an act of congress exempted AT&T from antitrust laws in 1921. Bell Labs was formed to research and develop new equipment and infrastructure for two customers: AT&T and its manufacturing arm, Western Electric. Telephone service customers ensured an ongoing system – ongoing as long as the government’s scrutiny would allow.

In chronicling Bell Labs’ contributions to modern communications, Gertner — who grew up a stone’s throw away from the company’s iconic Murray Hill campus — chose to recount the lives of a few important men who shaped — and were shaped by — the company’s culture of innovation. The most prominent figures profiled are Bill Shockley, who led the group that included Walter Brattain and John Bardeen that developed the solid state transistor; Claude Shannon, widely known as the Father of information theory; communications satellite pioneer John Pierce; and physicists-turned-architects of Bell Laboratories, Frank Jewett and Mervin Kelly.

This format turns the book into an exhaustive history of the company from which the author could take in any number of directions, and Jon Gertner largely succeeds in keeping things on track until the last few chapters where he struggles to tie it all together. But it’s a lot to get one’s arms around, whether it’s his descriptions of the Labs’ breakthrough technologies, the policies set forth by executives to foster interdisciplinary collaboration (including the design of the Murray Hill building itself with its famously long hallways, down which eccentrics like Shannon would ride his unicycle), and the company’s contributions to the nation’s defense and security.

Bell Laboratories meant many things to many people, so the book runs the risk of disappointing some readers. For instance, an engineer may wish for more emphasis on the technology. But if you want to learn how and why the communications industry got to where it is now, and about the people who made it happen, Jon Gertner delivers a meticulous account of this amazing incubator of innovation. And while the author does his best to sum up the myriad of factors that brought about so much accomplishment from one source, the reader realizes early on that there will never again be anything quite like Bell Laboratories.