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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovationby Jon Gertner
Synopses & Reviews
The definitive history of America’s greatest incubator of innovation, the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies, including the integrated circuit, the communications satellite and the cell phone.
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, it’s hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn’t been touched by Bell Labs.
Why did so many transformative ideas come from 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. Their job was to research and develop the future of communications. Small-town boys, childhood hobbyists, oddballs: they give the lie to the idea that Bell Labs was a grim cathedral of top-down command and control.
Gertner brings to life the powerful alchemy of the forces at work behind Bell Labs inventions, teasing out the intersections between science, business, and society. He distills the lessons that abide: how to recruit and nurture young talent; how to organize and lead fractious employees; how to find solutions to the most stubbornly vexing problems; how to transform a scientific discovery into a marketable product, then make it even better, cheaper, or both. 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.
The Idea Factory is the story of the origins of modern communications and the beginnings of the information age — a deeply human story of extraordinary men who were given extraordinary means — time, space, funds, and access to one another — and edged the world into a new dimension.
"New York Times Magazine writer Gertner provides a view of American research and development that will take engineers, scientists, and managers back to the golden age of invention in the U.S. 'To consider what occurred at Bell Labs...is to consider the possibilities of what large human organizations might accomplish.' Tracing the lives of key contributors — including Bill Shockley, John Pierce, Claude Shannon, and Mervin Kelley — Gertner provides a compelling history that moves quickly through an era that provided many of the advancements of modern life. From Bell Labs personnel — working for AT&T as well as the government during wartime — came an astonishing array of technology, from the telephone (which originally didn't have a ringer), to radar, synthetic rubber, and the laser. According to Pierce, the Bell Labs environment nurtured creativity by simply allowing scientists and engineers the time and money to research; its management was able to 'think long-term toward the revolutionary, and to simultaneously think near-term toward manufacturing.' Readers will glimpse the inner workings of the famed scientists, particularly Shannon, who 'frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing' — and occasionally doing both. Gertner follows these odd and brilliant thinkers to the end of Bell Labs in the 1980s and to their own ends, providing readers with insight into management, creativity, and engineering that remain applicable today. Scientists, tinkerers, managers, and HR professionals will find plenty of inspiration here. (Mar.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“Riveting...Mr. 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.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Filled with colorful characters and inspiring lessons...The Idea Factory explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation?” Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review
“One of the best innovation-focused books I've read: It's a wide-ranging, detailed, and deeply fascinating look at the New Jersey lab which has been churning out useful discoveries since the early 1900s.” The Boston Globe
“Compelling...Gertner's book offers fascinating evidence for those seeking to understand how a society should best invest its research resources.” The Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating history...the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing.” Slate Book Review
“An expansive new history...does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs.” Wired.com
"Remarkably well researched, lucidly written." The Seattle Times
“Gertner handles the experimentation descriptions with elegance and clarity, while proving even more engaging with his profiles of leading Bell lights.” Newark Star Ledger
"Gertner reveals the complicated humanity at work behind the scenes and provides unprecedented insight on some of history's most important scientific and technological advances. Packed with anecdotes and trivia and written in clear and compelling prose, this story of a cutting-edge and astonishingly robust intellectual era — and one not without its controversies and treachery — is immensely enjoyable.” Kirkus
A sweeping, atmospheric history of Bell Labs that highlights its unparalleled role as an incubator of innovation and birthplace of the century's most influential technologies.
Bell Laboratories, which thrived from the 1920s to the 1980s, was the most innovative and productive institution of the twentieth century. Long before America's brightest scientific minds began migrating west to Silicon Valley, they flocked to this sylvan campus in the New Jersey suburbs built and funded by AT&T. At its peak, Bell Labs employed nearly fifteen thousand people, twelve hundred of whom had PhDs. Thirteen would go on to win Nobel prizes. It was a citadel of science and scholarship as well as a hotbed of creative thinking. It was, in effect, a factory of ideas whose workings have remained largely hidden until now.
New York Times Magazine writer Jon Gertner unveils the unique magic of Bell Labs through the eyes and actions of its scientists. These ingenious, often eccentric men would become revolutionaries, and sometimes legends, whether for inventing radio astronomy in their spare time (and on the company's dime), riding unicycles through the corridors, or pioneering the principles that propel today's technology. In these pages, we learn how radar came to be, and lasers, transistors, satellites, mobile phones, and much more.
Even more important, Gertner reveals the forces that set off this explosion of creativity. Bell Labs combined the best aspects of the academic and corporate worlds, hiring the brightest and usually the youngest minds, creating a culture and even an architecture that forced employees in different fields to work together, in virtually complete intellectual freedom, with little pressure to create moneymaking innovations. In Gertner's portrait, we come to understand why both researchers and business leaders look to Bell Labs as a model and long to incorporate its magic into their own work.
Written with a novelist's gift for pacing and an ability to convey the thrill of innovation, The Idea Factory yields a revelatory take on the business of invention. What are the principles of innovation? How do new technology and new ideas begin? Are some environments more favorable than others? How should they be structured, and how should they be governed? Can strokes of genius be accelerated, replicated, standardized? The history of Bell Labs provides crucial answers that can and should be applied today by anyone who wants to understand where good ideas come from.
The definitive history of America's greatest incubator of technological innovation.
In this first full portrait of the legendary Bell Labs, journalist Jon Gertner takes readers behind one of the greatest collaborations between business and science in history. Officially the research and development wing of AT&T, Bell Labs made seminal breakthroughs from the 1920s to the 1980s in everything from lasers to cellular telephony, becoming arguably the best laboratory for new ideas in the world. Gertner's riveting narrative traces the intersections between science, business, and society that allowed a cadre of eccentric geniuses to lay the foundations of the information age, offering lessons in management and innovation that are as vital today as they were a generation ago.
The definitive history of America's greatest incubator of technological innovation
In this first full portrait of the legendary Bell Labs, journalist Jon Gertner takes readers behind one of the greatest collaborations between business and science in history. Officially the research and development wing of ATandT, Bell Labs made seminal breakthroughs from the 1920s to the 1980s in everything from lasers to cellular elephony, becoming arguably the best laboratory for new ideas in the world. Gertner's riveting narrative traces the intersections between science, business, and society that allowed a cadre of eccentric geniuses to lay the foundations of the information age, offering lessons in management and innovation that are as vital today as they were a generation ago.
About the Author
Jon Gertner grew up in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, just a few hundred yards away from Bell Labs. He has been a writer for the New York Times Magazine since 2004 and is an editor at Fast Company magazine. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.
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