The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
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From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs-officially, the research and development wing of AT&T-was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century's most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men-Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker-who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.
Kompfner—seemed to think this was imminent. Light waveguides were, at best, a next-generation technology.18 There was, perhaps, another option. It was the idea of a scientist well outside the elite ranks of Bell Labs. In 1966, an engineer named Charles Kao, employed in England by International Telephone and Telegraph, visited the Labs to talk about a technology he was researching in Europe. Kao had recently delivered a paper at an engineering conference in London suggesting that transparent
What was the best and cheapest way? The third was, How would you “hand off” a call from one cell to another? It had never been done. But it would be the system’s essential characteristic. As a mobile telephone user moved around, how could you switch the call from one antenna to another—from cell to cell, in other words—without causing great distraction to the caller? Frenkiel and Porter began working out some approximate answers to cell size and cell splitting and handoffs. “Those kinds of
such as Oliver Buckley, Frank Jewett, and Ralph Bown. 7 “Authorization for Work,” Case No. 38139. I actually came across two distinct work authorizations for the transistor. Both authorizations are dated January 1, 1945, but one is unsigned. The other (signed) has an approval date of June 21, 1945. The $417,000 cost was illegible in the latter and is taken from the former. AT&T archives. 8 Brattain’s notebooks from 1945 to 1948 are the ur-text of the transistor’s genesis. I reviewed them at the
maser signal … by using an electro-optical device—the Kerr Cell.” 13 Herwig Kogelnik, author interview. 14 An undated explanatory flyer about the Bell laser research explained, “When Picturephone service becomes common, when high-speed data communication between computers is more widespread, and when all of today’s communications services have expanded, present message carrying capacities may not be enough.” AT&T archives. 15 Stewart Miller, “Communication by Laser,” Scientific American,
downsizing at, 333 durability tests at, 48–49 essential idea of, 32–33 funding for, 154, 156, 333, 336, 351 growth of, 76–77 Holmdel facility, see Holmdel individual genius vs. collaboration at, 133–35 interdisciplinary groups at, 79–80 Kelly’s lectures about, 149–52 Kwajalein outpost of, 293–94 lectures at, 43 Lucent and, 335–37, 338, 340, 346 management style at, 102 markets for products of, 154 materials at, 50–51, 81–83, 114 math department at, 122–23, 133 military and, see