AMITIAE - Sunday 25 March 2012
Excellence in Research - Book Review - The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
By Graham K. Rogers
Bell Labs, along with other famous names like MIT and Xerox, Palo Alto, were at the core of technological discovery from the early part of the 20th century. Jon Gertner describes in a an easy to read text, that draws the reader along, about how Bell Labs was symbolic of the golden days of American technological creativity.
IntroductionAppropriately enough for a work of this nature, I used the digital version from Amazon. This system works well for me in Thailand where (like the iTunes music store) we are unable to buy any books via Apple's iBook store. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are well able to get to grips with this market. The price was $15.49, reduced from $29.95.
Using the Kindle App, I was able to download the book on the iPad, the iPhone and the Mac. With the clever way the downloaded versions work, when I opened it on the Mac or the iPhone it was at exactly the spot that I had left off reading on the iPad. In addition, any highlights or bookmarks I made on one device, were synchronised too.
Superscript links within the text link directly to the full reference, but it was never easy to return to the page I was on if the citation was examined while reading: take a note of the "location" (not page).
Unlike a work in iBooks, we cannot copy and paste text from the Kindle app, which means of course that I had to wrote out all the quotes. If information is to be shared, it is not at all easily done. There are Twitter and Facebook options, but these may be unsuitable and I was unable to enter any text I had highlighted, making them useless. The Kindle app is much less useful in this way. Should I want to use the text in a class, for example, a screenshot (.JPG) is about the only realistic option.
The Idea FactoryIn the opening paragraphs of The Idea Factory I was drawn to the description of the establishment and its members. It reminded me of the teams who were drafted to Bletchley Park for the Enigma and Lorenz code-breaking programs: Its ranks included the world's most brilliant (and eccentric) men and women. Some ideas formed there were not merely technical. For example, as a way to quantify improvements that were made in the Labs, a mathematician -- Walter A. Shewhart -- created a system that was soon known as Quality Control (Q.C.).
An anecdote describes how the early telephone system was a collection of problems begging for solutions (not much has changed) -- there were no ringers initially, "callers would get the attention of those they were calling by yelling loudly (often "ahoy") into the receiver. . . ." The research carried out by American Telephone and Telegraph (now AT&T) was broad. Early subjects included the calculation of the optimum distance between poles and the spacing between wires (8").
The creation of the vacuum tube in the research labs is described in some detail (we take this and the later transistor so much for granted). This allowed transnational communications to be established, but was also crucial in the relationships that AT&T would maintain with scientists for the solutions to problems. The early philosophy, that "invention was not to be scheduled nor coerced" was to pay dividends in a way that Theodore Vail (head of AT&T then) can never have imagined, but he was a CEO above petty shareholder concerns or the fretting of accountants.
When Bell Labs was eventually created from the earlier research establishments and was semi-autonomous, that relaxed philosophy was evident with an indistinctness about goals. It was later described by Jewett as
. . . an instrument which can bring to bear an aggregate of creative force on any particular problem which is infinitely greater than any force which can be conceived of as residing in the intellectual capacity of an individual."
Two (or more) heads are better than one.
Adding to this was a doors-open policy: no one could refuse to offer advice. Compared with the closed doors, barriers-up, secrecy in modern academia, this was a revelation particularly as it became clear that these factors had as much to do with the free flow of ideas that would lead to specific insights: the Eureka moments.
It was here, from the mid-1940s through to the 1960s especially, that some of the more significant technology that affects how we operate today, especially in the field of telecommunications, was developed. In its heyday it would rival other research giants like MIT, UCLA, Stamford and Xerox at Palo Alto, although even with these Bell Labs maintained a greater degree of cross-fertilization of ideas than exists in research today.
As much as the building, with its purpose-built facilities was to produce new technology, no less important was Kelly's total reorganisation of the personnel structure: demoting, promoting, combining groups. That Kelly foresaw the revolution that solid-state materials would bring, is probable, so his own organisation skills may well be considered a part of the stimulation that the personnel intersections would bring: Kelly was the right man in the right place at just the right time.
While examining its influence, the author wisely concentrates on a few of the more significant research ideas: it is in these that the essence of what Bell Labs was, is contained. However, I was a little surprised to find that UNIX and the CCD (for digital photography) were barely mentioned.
That early development of the vacuum tube, for example, leaves an implied idea that there must be something better than the less than perfect glass device that was hard to make and would often fail. We know now that the answer was the transistor (itself superseded by the integrated circuit), but this was more than 30 years down the road then. Gertner cleverly leaves this dangling as more of the Bell Labs story is related.
Although the Labs were research-oriented, their purpose was to find solutions to problems (perhaps some not yet found). There was acute awareness that such innovations were valuable. Each of the new breed of researchers like Shockley, Townes, Brattain and Fiske, were asked to sell their rights to future patents and "in exchange for their signatures, each was given a crisp one-dollar bill."
The arrangement with the Federal Government -- because AT&T was at that time a regulated monopoly -- meant that the patents for the new processes and inventions were licensed to other companies, large and small, and as a result some of the engineers from those companies would drop by: to attend seminars, to chat, and to see what was new. This relative openness accelerated the technological growth of the period.
As well as Kelly, Shockley et al, Claude Shannon figures significantly. He was responsible for creating some of the mathematical foundations that led to programming. Shannon's insights, for example laid down the essence of message sending with the theory of error-correcting codes. As was often the case when newer recruits were advised to visit one of the more senior researchers, the comment, "he wrote the book," was often the reality.
And of course, the idea of a band of satellites above the earth at 22,300 miles was put forward in "an obscure paper" in the mid-1940s by a British radar expert named Arthur C. Clarke (himself a frequent visitor to the Labs). Clarke's idea was useless at the time, of course, but is another strong argument for funding research that has no immediate benefits. AT&T (as they were) took this approach for years with Bell Labs.
However, it is noted at the very end of Part 1 that "in any company's greatest achievements one might, with the clarity of hindsight, locate the beginnings of its own demise."
When you are at the top, the only way is down.
The final sections of the book look not only at the end of the Labs but at the final years of some of the personalities that had been critical in the greatness of the developments that had come from the establishment. There is a sadness here as once great theoreticians are lost to Alzheimer's, cancers, or other illnesses: physically and mental declines of the sharpest minds in the business who had been motivated by curiosity, not by money.
CommentsThe book takes the form, in the main of a chronological narrative, with some digressions and illustrative overlays (flashback, description) that make this a compelling rendition. The more reflective Part 2 does have a slower pace. There is the occasional clumsy construction, like "as he proved in his mathematical proofs" and a couple of suspect metaphorical flourishes like, "As they waited for the gun to fire, the communications engineers poised at the starting line of the satellite era. . . ." These are forgiven, however, in the overall strength of the story. It is easier to wince and move on as the detail, page by page, is so densely packed.
It is a story that helps define the technology of the time. The discoveries themselves pale in the face of what Francis Bello (in a 1958 Fortune article) called "the preeminent discovery of the 20th century . . . the power of organized scientific research. . . ."
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.
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