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

by Jon Gertner
Penguin Press, NY, NY, 2012
432 pp. Trade, US$29.95
ISBN-13: 978-1594203282.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704 USA


In his opening line of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner states that “This is a book about the origins of modern communication as seen through the adventures of several men who spent their careers working at Bell Labs” (p. 1). Gertner goes on to explain that the Bell Labs environment was an incubator of innovation and offers a narrative documenting many of the transitional technologies of the twentieth century that were created from within this culture.  Among the best known are the transistor, developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, Charge Coupled Device (CCD) semiconductor imaging sensors and the discovery of the predicted level of background cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang. It is often stated, and Gertner reiterates this, that creativity thrived at Bell Labs because the leaders of the company set up an arena that encouraged employees in different fields to work together. Another reason Gertner expounds on is that the Labs’ success was due to the way that employees enjoyed significant freedom in pursuing projects.  This was possible because Ma Bell’s monopoly and the guaranteed income it generated meant that there was little pressure to restrict the projects to foreseeably moneymaking innovations.

AT&T’s monopoly, which ended in 1982, was put in place when the US Congress passed the Willis-Graham Act of 1921. This legislation exempted the company from federal antitrust laws, allowing the company to function as a government-mandated “natural monopoly.” The premise behind the law was that AT&T inhabited a problem-rich environment because they needed to invent from scratch everything that we associate with the telephone industry (dial tones, hang-up hooks, telephone ringers, etc.).  This unique set of circumstances allowed the monopoly to develop a manufacturing entity, Western Electric, the sole provider of equipment and a research and development arm, Bell Telephone Laboratories (Bell Labs).  Gertner takes us through various inventions and episodes of history of the Lab, which still functions today.  Topics include how the design of the Murray Hill campus aided interdisciplinary exchange, the laying of the transatlantic cable, Echo and Telstart, and more. The chapters unfold along the lines Gertner outlined in his opening sentence, with the focus centered around a few especially significant people who thrived within Bell Labs (e.g., Claude Shannon, Jim Fisk, Melvin Kelly, William Baker, John Pierce, William Shockley).

Overall, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation reads more like a narrative documenting the rise and fall of Bell Labs, which I assume was the author’s intention, than a study of how the work at Bell Labs was a part of a larger revolution in the twentieth century. Because Gertner focused on the Labs’ story through looking at the “heroes,” rather than adopting a more systemic approach, the labs impact on the culture as a whole is underemphasized. He mentions that at its peak in the 1960s, Bell Labs employed nearly 15,000 people, including some 1200 PhDs, but fails to fully capture the scope of the projects these people conducted at this intellectual utopia. Thus, the end result of his study is less a definitive history than a narrowly conceived perspective.  Given Gertner’s extensive use of interviews and primary documents it seems extraordinary that he missed so much of what I’ve always thought was an important part of Bell’s creative legacy.

For example, development of the transistor is one achievement of Bell Labs that is detailed extensively. (It is clear that Gertner read Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson [1].) Gertner explains that John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, who worked in a Shockley led research group, demonstrated the “point-contact” transistor on Dec. 23, 1947. They built their transistor with little help from him. Shockley, who does not come off as a “team” player throughout, then broke with the Bell Labs’ collaboration policy by separately inventing a second, more reliable, “junction” transistor in secret. This created some tensions, as Gertner outlines. Finally, in 1954, Morris Tanenbaum invented the third, “silicon” transistor (the previous designs were germanium) that is the basis for the vast majority of today’s transistors. One point the book reiterates is that Shockley left Bell Labs in 1955 and that his Shockley Labs in Mountain View, California laid the foundation for what would become Silicon Valley. In this sense, the legacy of Bell remains evident in the technology environment of today.

On the other hand, it seems strange to me that, although A. Michael Noll and Max Matthews were interviewed by Gertner, the book doesn’t convey the convergence of art, science and technology at the Lab.  Some of what is missing is evident on Noll’s Bell Labs page [2]., where he notes:

“There were often interesting diversions from daily research. When the acoustic failings of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center were acknowledged, Bell Telephone Laboratories was asked to investigate. My boss Manfred Schroder was a physicist with a strong knowledge of acoustics and headed our team . . . There was a steady flow of interesting visitors to the Labs. Roy Disney came by to see our early work in computer animation—but saw no relevance then to his company! We invited Leopold Stokowski to visit to hear our work in computer music. Max Mathews had many composers and musicians who visited to learn of his research into electronic music. Bela Julesz and I exhibited our computer-generated patterns at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City in 1965—the first exhibit of digital art in the US.”

I bought the book because of I was hoping to learn more about this side of Bell Labs, so I was particularly disappointed by its omission.  Leonardo folks are probably asking what else was missing? Well, there was the early exhibition of computer art in 1965 called Computer-Generated Pictures, in New York City that featured work by Bela Julesz and A. Michael Noll, mentioned above. In this case, the name of the exposition did not include the word ‘art,’ because these ‘generated pictures’ were not yet seen as such. Shortly before the book came out Christopher Tyler, who did his post-doc at Bell Labs under Bela Julesz and had an office next to Max Mathews and across the corridor from Lillian Schwartz, mentioned the excitement surrounding a Stevie Wonder visit to the Lab to see the state-of-the art sound studio developed by Mathews. Lillian Schwartz, who is often characterized as a creator of 20th century computer-developed art, wrote a book that includes a sampling of the work at the Lab.

Another key figure from this time was Billy Klüver, the founder of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), who began his work in this area as an electrical engineer at Bell Labs. In the early 1960s, his first project was with kinetic art sculptor Jean Tinguely on his "Homage to New York" (1960), a machine that destroyed itself and was presented in the garden at MOMA.  Klüver also collaborated with Jasper Johns, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Andy Warhol. One of Klüver’s best-known projects (in 1966) was with Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. They organized 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of performances that united artists and engineers. Other key figures included Emmanuel Ghent (electronic music); Ken Knowlton (Beflix , or Bell Flicks animation system), which was used to produce dozens of animated films with artists like Stan VanDerBeek); Laurie Spiegel (electronic music), and Jerry Spivak (a pioneer in interactive graphics) [3].

Strangely, the book that frequently came to mind as I read was A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn [4], which has nothing to do with Bell Labs.  Zinn’s book, published in 1980, sought to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. He did this because he felt that placing an emphasis on the “great men in high places” perspective, which was taught in most schools up until this point, missed many aspects of the events that actually shaped the United States. Indeed, because Zinn looked at the struggles of those who fought slavery and racism, labor unions, and war makers, some critics pegged the book as leftist, multicultural, anti-imperialist historiography. Although the omission I noted in this book were not political, they were nonetheless apparent.

Gertner notes that Arthur C. Clarke said (in the late 1950s), “At first sight, when one comes upon it in its surprisingly rural setting, the Bell Telephone Laboratories’ main New Jersey site looks like a large and up-to-date factory, which in a sense it is. But it is a factory for ideas, and so its production lines are invisible” (p. 4-5).  The art, science and technology community benefitted immensely from this “creative factory” and, ironically, this research arm of the AT&T monopoly funded the research that helped develop a new set of tools for artists. This book does convey some of the interdisciplinarity that thrived at the lab; thus, although not definitive, it is quite informative.  Gertner’s knack for telling stories makes the book easy to read.  Some segments of the story come through well, such as why many people say Marvin Kelly, who was the head of Bell Labs when Brattain, Bardeen and Shockley developed transistors, deserved to be the fourth recipient of their 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics (because of his way of bringing talent together and encouraging creativity). There is some discussion of the venture capital model and how it compares to the Bell Labs model, despite the way the former requires an end product and the latter allows basic research to thrive. In addition, figures like Claude Shannon are dealt with deftly in various stages of their careers.  Still, as noted above, the reach of the book is an evident limitation in the narrative. While The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation is definitely worth reading, I would recommend that readers recognize that the volume omits key episodes of Bell Labs’ legacy.

[1] Riordan, Michael. Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1997.

[2] See http://noll.uscannenberg.org/.

[3] The EAT lectures are now on YouTube, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoxuzPPstXc.  More information about the Bell Labs history is available at 

http://retiary.org/ls/btl/btl.html and http://retiary.org/ls/btl/btl.html.

[4] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. Rev. and updated ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995.

Last Updated 1 May 2012

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