Seeds of the future

“The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” by Jon Gertner (Penguin, 422 pages, $29.95)

In today’s world of Apple, Google and Facebook, the name may not ring any bells for most readers, but for decades — from the 1920s through the 1980s — Bell Labs, the research and development wing of AT&T, was the world’s most innovative scientific organization. As Jon Gertner argues in his riveting new book, “The Idea Factory,” it was where the future was invented.

Indeed, Bell Labs was behind many of the innovations that have come to define modern life, including the transistor (the building block of all digital products), the laser, the silicon solar cell and the computer operating system called Unix (which would serve as the basis for a host of other computer languages). Bell Labs developed the first communications satellites, the first cellular telephone systems and the first fiber-optic cable systems.

Bell Labs scientist Claude Elwood Shannon effectively founded the field of information theory, which would revolutionize thinking about communications; other Bell Labs researchers helped push the boundaries of physics, chemistry and mathematics, while defining new industrial processes like quality control.

In “The Idea Factory,” Gertner not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons the research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

It’s clear from this volume that the visionary leadership of the researcher-turned-executive Mervin Kelly played a large role in Bell Labs’ sense of mission and its ability to institutionalize the process of innovation so effectively. Kelly believed that an “institute of creative technology” needed a critical mass of talented scientists — whom he housed in a single building, where physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers were encouraged to exchange ideas — and he gave his researchers the time to pursue their own investigations “sometimes without concrete goals, for years on end.”

That freedom, of course, was predicated on the steady stream of revenue provided (in the years before the AT&T monopoly was broken up in the early 1980s) by the monthly bills paid by telephone subscribers, which allowed Bell Labs to function “much like a national laboratory.”

Unlike, say, many Silicon Valley companies today, which need to keep an eye on quarterly reports, Bell Labs in its heyday could patiently search out what Gertner calls “new and fundamental ideas,” while using its immense engineering staff to “develop and perfect those ideas” — creating new products, then making them cheaper, more efficient and more durable.

Given the evolution of the digital world we inhabit today, Kelly’s prescience is stunning in retrospect. “He had predicted grand vistas for the postwar electronics industry even before the transistor,” Gertner writes. “He had also insisted that basic scientific research could translate into astounding computer and military applications, as well as miracles within the communications systems.”

Gertner’s portraits of Kelly and the cadre of talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.

Gertner deftly puts these scientists’ work in the context of what was known at the time (and what would rapidly evolve from their initial discoveries in the decades since), even as he describes in remarkably lucid terms the steps by which one discovery led — sometimes by serendipity, sometimes by dogged work — to another, as well as the process by which ideas were turned by imaginative engineers into inventions and eventually into products that could be mass-produced.

Gertner nimbly captures the collegial atmosphere of Bell Labs and the mood of intellectual ferment — a blending of entrepreneurial zeal, academic inquiry and passion to achieve things that initially seemed technologically impossible — that infected its New Jersey campuses.

The very success of Bell Labs, he notes, contained the seeds of its destruction. Not only was it producing too many ideas for a single company to handle, but some of its innovations (like the transistor) also altered the technological landscape so much that its core business would be reduced to a mere part of the ever-expanding field of information and electronic technology — a field increasingly dominated by new rivals, with which a post-monopoly AT&T had difficulty competing.

AT&T’s original mission — to create and maintain a system of modern communications — has largely been fulfilled. And according to Gertner, the current Bell Labs president, Jeong Kim, believes that the future of communications may be defined by an industry yet to be created: a business that does not simply deliver or search out information, but also somehow manages and organizes the vast flood of data that threatens to overwhelm our lives.

The larger idea, Gertner concludes, is that “electronic communication is a miraculous development but it is also, in excess, a dehumanizing force. It proves Kelly’s belief that even as new technology solves one problem, it creates others.”