Friday, April 13, 2012

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner - Book Review

Jon Gertner's new, and perhaps important, book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Ageof American Innovation may stand as a metaphor for the rise and fall of America in the twentieth century or just prove to be a fascinating and highly readable account of a great American corporation. Regardless of which eventually proves to be true, this volume tells a fascinating story in a lively and readable fashion which will capture the imagination of readers interested in our country or its corporate giants.

Bell Labs developed in the early 20th century as the telephone moved from being a novelty to a necessity. Often, in order to solve problems as they developed, the young engineers and scientists had to do basic science research, mathematics, to discover new materials, knowledge about physics and chemistry so that engineers could build the equipment to solve problems of sending messages over miles of wire, design switching systems to make a call go where it was supposed to, invent ways a person would know a call was coming in, develop ways to make sure telephone poles would last when placed in the ground, keep wires from deteriorating when strung underground and literally tens of thousands of other needs. They did basic science, engineering, and design in order to solve problems no one had anticipated when the first telephone system was begun. Along the way, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) developed a corporate structure including the labs, a manufacturing arm to build all the equipment needed, called Western Electric, and an operating company and then bought out or out-competed smaller companies as they developed, eventually creating a national, if not world wide, monopoly they claimed was the only way to provide reliable service to customers. They built equipment for a lifespan of a minimum of forty years, always improving service and lowering individual costs while becoming the largest and most powerful corporation on earth.

The Idea Factory is the story of the rise and fall of this giant corporation told through the lives of a small group of brilliant men who had the vision to foresee the problems and develop the theory and implementation to solve them. From the work of these men came vacuum tubes, transistors, semi-conductors, silicon chips, cell phones, and thousands of smaller implementing discoveries that earned Bell Labs employees Nobel prizes and made the company billions of dollars. Jon Gertner tells this story through the lives and careers of five men: Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker. Like many other Bell Lab scientists and managers, these men tended to come from mid-western, lower middle class families. They were noticed for their brilliance by high school or college science and math instructors who helped them develop their careers and promote them to the attention of the leadership at Bell Labs, where they all made their greatest contributions. Each of these men (and almost all employees of Bell Labs during its ascendancy seemed to have been white, Protestant males) was both brilliant and quirky, almost seeming to have what would now be identified something like Asberger's syndrome – painfully thin, marginally communicative, not well socialized, capable of both intense concentration and wildly gyrating interests. The book follows their careers and, fortunately, contains an epilogue telling what happened to them after leaving Bell Labs. In the case of the notorious Nobel prize winner Bill Shockley, the arc of his story from brilliant student and mentor to racist nutcase is both tragic and fascinating.

Much of the contribution of Bell Labs can be attributed to the practice of freeing the scientists working there from commercial restraints, knowing that placing scientists and engineers in an environment where they must interact with each other would inevitably lead to the development of devices with huge commercial viability. This all was possible because AT&T, as a regulated monopoly, didn't have to compete with others in its industry. This left Bell Labs in a position to be able to afford failure in the certain knowledge that large reaches for excellence mean there will also be many more failures than successes. For instance, in the search for better conductors, scientists were able to try to eliminate literally thousands of alloys before discovering the ones that met their needs. While Bell Labs personnel worked in inter-disciplinary groups, they often meshed and then reformed based on the needs of the moment. The system also allowed individual geniuses to follow their own muse with little budgetary restraint. This permitted them to achieve ground-breaking insights like Shockley's invention of the solid state transistor and Eugene Shannon's development of information theory that eventually set off the entire computer revolution.

The fall of AT&T and the subsequent decline of Bell Labs is as interesting as its rise. As AT&T, Western Electric, and Bell Labs, working under a government sanctioned regulated monopoly became increasingly rich and powerful, the U.S. government developed an increasing interest in breaking it up into its constituent parts. By becoming essential to the war effort (hot and cold) during the 1940's and 50's, AT&T leadership sought to become so essential to the defense effort that its corporate telecommunications monopoly could stay whole with minimal government interference. Meanwhile, Time magazine said, “Few companies are more conservative, none are more creative.” (165) In order to gain its protective status, AT&T had agreed (1) not enter the computer or consumer electronics market and (2) to license its present and future U.S. patents to all American applicants. As the telecommunications industry became ever more inseparable from computers and other companies gained access to Bell Labs patents, the corporation was required to become increasingly competitive, a quality that had never been required of it before, and which it wasn't much good at. The market research and subsequent failure of the Picturephone business provides an example of this. With the severing of Western Electric from AT&T and the corporation's breakup into several operating companies, the decline of Bell Labs became inevitable.

Jon Gertner
  Photo - Leslie de la Vega

The appeal of this fine book lies in Gertner's ability to depict the exciting environment of scientific and engineering discovery coupled with internal and external politics in a mix of complex, fascinating personalities which evolves as a deeply involving, intriguing tale of corporate power, growth, and eventual decline. AT&T's motto: One Policy, One System, Universal Service created a low cost, reliable service to everyone and sewed the seeds of its own eventual destruction as its innovations became available to competitors. One implication of this story is seen in the current low level of Research & Development in American corporations today, the lack of government support for such efforts, and the reduction of public support for basic science in the country as a whole. Through profiles of key Bell Lab scientists and leaders, Gertner builds a picture of the work and character of Bell Labs while keeping his story human and highly readable. The Idea Factory: BellLabs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner is must reading for economic purists who seek to deny the importance of cooperation between private corporations, government, and universities in developing new ideas, the importance of basic scientific research, and the importance of a high tolerance for failure in the search for breakthrough technologies.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and theGreat Age of Innovation by Jon Gertner is published by The Penguin Press (2012) and has a retail price of $29.95. It is 422 pages long and contains extensive EndNotes and Amplifications, List of Sourches, Selected Bibliography, and an Index. While being a serious exploration of a major American corporation, it remains an interesing, engaging, and thought provoking volume. The book was provided to me by the publisher through TLC Book Tours.

Other Stops on Jon Gertner's Book Tour
Tuesday, March 13th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Wednesday, March 14th: EmSun part 1, part 2
Thursday, March 15th: The Rat Race Trap
Friday, March 23rd: Balance In Me
Tuesday, March 27th: Nanxi Liu
Tuesday, April 3rd: The Psychology of Wellbeing
Wednesday, April 4th: I’m Booking It
Thursday, April 12th: Business Growth Strategies