Monday, March 26, 2012

The Idea Factory

Working just around the corner from where (Holmdel, NJ) much of this innovation happened, I'm interested in reading how such a successful culture of innovation was created and ultimately how it fell apart.

Michiko Kakutani's review of ‘The Idea Factory,’ by Jon Gertner:

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.

The 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,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.


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.

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