The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American InnovationThe Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is highly recommended for a technology geek, history geek, history of technology geek, anyone interested in technological innovation, or just plain Ma Bell fans.

Mr. Gertner has amassed an excellent, in-depth (depth as in really deep), coverage of the phenomena that was Bell Labs. He’s captured the development, processes, inventions, personalities – the egos, the drives, the vanities and intellects, the senses of humor (Jim Fisk “was fond of putting his colleagues on mailing lists of doctors peddling dubious tonics.” !!) He writes with a literary description (“- men in crisp white shirts, sleeves rolled above their elbows, bent over rows and rows of drafting tables.”) And, something I find quite refreshing, given this has to have elements of creative non-fiction (facts are dull…narrative gives them life):

One afternoon, Mervin Kelly invited [Walter] Brattain over to his home in Short Hills to discuss the matter [Brattain’s displeasure with William Schockley]. They likely met in Kelly’s study, where he saw all his visitors – […]

My emphasis added, that is the way to write about unknown information!

So much information here, and insights into what Bell Labs was and created. Not all inventions, the processes that worked their way to the world:

[Jack A.] Morton would eventually think more deeply about the innovative process than any Bell Labs scientist, with the possible exception of Kelly, In his view, innovation was not a simple action but a “total process” of interrelated parts. “It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of a new market, ” he later wrote. “Rather, the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal.”

Holistic innovation. What a novel concept.

Gertner writes of the demise, that Bell Labs “ceased being essential to America’s technology and culture.” Sad that, for an institution that created the transistor – arguably the most significant invention ever, the integrated circuit, solar cells, lasers, and a host of other common place today innovations, an institution that reinvented itself many times, finally succumbed.

Excellent history.

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