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10/14/14

From the TBR Shelf #31: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner


http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-8PocPRM48Gk/T4a-YZPmPvI/AAAAAAAA2Og/lmqbkyrIHk4/s1600/The_Idea_Factory+Cover.jpg The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (2012) by Jon Gertner

I admit it- I'm a sucker for all things related to the history of science and technology, which was why I was so excited to listen to The Idea Factory. After all, despite having been born during the decade of the Bell system break-up, I only knew bits and pieces about the history of telephone communication in the United States. Its development is fascinating and multi-dimensional, and still influences how we communicate today.

Another admission: I nearly stopped listening to this audiobook by track 90, because up to that point, it seemed like nothing more than a list of all the brilliant minds recruited to work for Bell Labs (1920s-1980s), the research and development wing of AT&T. I mean, it was interesting to learn about how men like Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker were brought to the labs because of their expertise and technical know-how, but I started wondering what the point of it all was.

It's a good thing I kept going, because the other 100+ tracks were fantastic. I learned about how the transistor came about (and how it got its name), how the integrated circuit was first introduced, how communications satellites went from being a dream to a reality. Gertner explained that the organizational structure of the labs and its philosophy went a long way toward making these inventions and discoveries possible. Because Bell Labs had a secure funding stream and AT&T was a monopoly for most of the 20th century, the researchers were given a wide berth, encouraged to pursue even the wildest ideas, because curiosity and a "flirtation with failure" are often necessary for great disoveries to be made.

While at times the book takes on a nostalgic air, Gertner insists at the end that the spirit of curiosity and discovery that made Bell Labs so successful still lives on today in the few industrial research labs scattered around the country. However, the nature of the communications business in the 21st century has shifted enough so that risk and failure are often shunned, rather than embraced. Brilliance and curiosity, though, are present in every generation, and often the greatest discoveries happen when no one expects them.

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