AMITIAE - Sunday 25 March 2012

Excellence in Research - Book Review - The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

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By Graham K. Rogers

Idea Factory

Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Penguin: New York, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-101-56108-9. ($15.49 - Amazon, digital download)

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.


Appropriately 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 book has an Introduction and 20 chapters (organised in two parts), plus Acknowledgements, Endnote and Amplifications, Sources, Selected Bibliography and an Index (always a good indication of quality in my view). This was some 13 pages on the computer version of the Kindle and 23 on the iPad with the smallest font. There were also some 20 pages of black & white photographs after the Index (12 on my Mac).

The Idea Factory

In 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.).

Throughout, one character canons into another, so while we may start with the principal (such as the influential Mervin Kelly) we meet many important researchers as Kelly takes over from Harvey Fletcher in Robert Millikan's lab (where Paul Epstein studied), and Frank Balwin (who had been Millikan's best man) went to work at American Telephone & Telegraph. As part of the early background leading to the establishment of the research wing, AT&T is described as "ferociously litigious", but was also not averse to engaging in sabotage: so much for a kindly Ma Bell. The company's policy of "noncompliance" contains lessons for modern carriers.

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.

Descriptions of the early Labs illustrate the working conditions, bringing out the unique perspectives and insight that existed even in the first half of the 20th Century: "it was believed . . . that wireless transmissions would be a thing of the future, a way to 'reach inaccessible places where wires cannot be strung. . . .'".

World War 2 was a watershed, not only in terms of technology when progress and discovery are always accelerated. The recognition of this from those like Kelly was a spur for the delayed (since the Depression) establishment of the Labs in an out of city location. The New Jersey campus was deliberately designed not as a series of separate departments, but as a single construction with long corridors where intermingling between different disciplines was inevitable.

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.

Inevitably, the research was all about money; or, at least, technological leadership leading to commercial advantage. The vision that allowed the team members to conduct pure research, however, without there ever being a known goal, is in stark contrast to the patent factories of today. Venture capital, while being a liberating force has imposed on industry a need for return. AT&T (via Bell Labs) was able to recognise that the return might not arrive for 20 or more years.

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.

Separate developments, themselves almost useless at the time they were created, could come together later as solutions to problems that had not existed. Telstar, for example (now a piece of space junk), "was a synchronous use of sixteen inventions," none made specifically for space purposes, including solar cells, transistors, and the travelling wave tube (TWT) used in the transponder.

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.

Shockley was not always a team player and was less well thought of subsequently. This came in part from his development of the junction transistor not long after the original transistor was revealed. He left Bell Labs (perhaps) because he was not promoted. Subsequently Shockley Semiconductor was established, but his personal style again caused difficulties leading to the resignation of the "Traitorous Eight" who joined Fairchild. Among the Eight were Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore who later founded Intel. Shockley's later flirting with dysgenics and eventually racism are depicted in the second part of the book along with other negatives that surrounded the decline of Bell Labs and some of its related personnel.

It was also interesting to read, in the light of the trends of consumer litigation these days that people in the late-1950s were just as likely to make wild claims about new technology. When early satellite transmission experiments using a massive aluminium-clad balloon were taking place, one woman claimed, "Your balloon made me pregnant" (Plus Ça change, plus c'est la même chose), which is balanced by the gorgeous question on innovations from Walter Cronkite in the 1960s on the merging of technology: ". . . some sort of a central communications panel in the home, a single switchboard from which all can be done?" The PC, of course as imagined back then.

The 1970s saw a changing of political philosophies that led to the breaking up of the "natural monopoly" that AT&T had always claimed to be. It is perhaps significant that after the merging with Cingular in 2007 the commercial gravitation would seem at least a partial proof of that. But on the way, they lost Bell Labs. Some of the researchers went to Bellcore, but Lucent (as the Labs became) was eventually spun off from AT&T in 1996 and 10 years later merged with Alcatel. Like the keen minds of the personnel that had driven Bell Labs, the synergies were by then long gone.

Gertner has a good handle on the technologies that were developed. His descriptions of lasers and the related technology of fiber-optics allows the reader to understand their inner workings: to appreciate the significance of these innovations. Likewise, the early work on the communications systems that became cellular technology, show how these seeds led to the widespread use of the mobile phones that many of us use today, but also led to the end of the monopolistic AT&T and thus Bell Labs. When discussing the preliminary comments by Judge Greene (who oversaw the breakup), Gertner writes an affirmation of the words with which he ended Part 1: "All the innovations returned, ferociously, in the form of competition."

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.


The 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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