The Idea Factory

This book put discoveries/inventions of science into context of the time they were first found. Sure I’d learned about transistors and semi-conductors in school but the context here, the stories of the researchers behind them, made it much more enjoyable.


Radar won the war, the atom bombs ended it.

Bell Labs didn’t hire Jews until WW2.

Having just turned thirty years old, Fisk was now charged with perhaps the most important scientific project in the United States.

Shannon wasn’t interested in helping with the complex implementation of PCM - that was a job for the development engineers at Bell Labs and would end up taking them more than a decade. “I am very seldom interested in applications,” he later said. “I am more interested in the elegance of a problem. Is it a good problem, an interesting problem?”


But in some respects his solitude was interesting, too , for it had become a matter of some consideration at the Labs whether the key to invention was a matter of individual genius or collaboration. To those trying to routinize the process of innovation there was evidence both for and against the primacy of the group.

What’s more, in the right environment, a group or wise colleague could provoke an individual toward an insight, too. In the midst of Shannon’s career, some lawyers in the patent department at bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather “he drew people out, got them thinking.” More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.


Eventually mathematicians would debate not whether Shannon was ahead of his contemporaries. They would debate whether he was twenty, or thirty, or fifty years ahead.

Shannon would later tell an interviewer that the institution of Bell Labs (its intellectual environment, its people, its freedom, and, most important, the Bell System’s myriad technical challenges) deserved a fair amount of credit for his information theory.

To Kelly, inventing the future wasn’t just a matter of inventing things for the future; it also entailed inventing ways to invent those things.

(reminds me of ‘invent the children that will invent the future)

“You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,” Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, “but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other sixteen and a half hours.” He seemed to live by his own advice.

An instigator is different from a genius, but just as uncommon. An instigator is different, too, from the most skillful manager, someone able to wrest excellence out of people who might otherwise fall short.

In the end, though, it (Telstar) served as an almost perfect example of Pierce’s contention that innovations tend to happen when the time is right. Indeed, Telstar was not one invention but rather a syncrhonous use of sixteen inventions patented at the Labs over teh course of twenty-five years. “None of the inventions was made specifically for space purposes,” the New York Times pointed out. On the other hand, only all of them together allowed for the deployment of an active space satellite.

Every day at lunch he(Bill Baker) would sit down with the first person he spotted in the cafteria, whether he was a glassblower from the vacuum tube shop or a metallurgist from the semiconductor lab - “Is it okay if I join you?” he would ask politely, never to be refused - and would gently interview the employee about his work and personal life and ideas. “At the end of any conversation,” Baker’s friend and colleague Mike Noll recalls, “you would then realize he would know everything about you but you would know absolutely nothing about him.”

A very small number of times in my life I’ve been in the presence of somebody who didn’t necessarily answer the question I asked. They answered the question I should have asked.

It was Engel’s understanding that to get ahead at bell Labs, “you were supposed to work on more than you were asked to work on.” It was necessary, in other words, not only to do your assigned work but to devote 20 or 30 percent of your time to another project.

The thing about Bell Labs, Frenkiel remarks, was that it could spend millions of dollars - or even $100 million, which was what AT&T would spend on cellular before it went to market - on a technology that offered little guarantee it would succeed technologically or economically. Indeed, a marketing study commissioned by AT&T in the fall of 1971 informed its team that “there was no market for mobile phones at any price.” Neither man agreed with that assessment. Though Engel didn’t perceive it at the time, he later came to believe that marketing studies could only tell you something about the demand for products that actually exist. Cellular phones were a product that people had to imagine might exist.

“It’s just plain silly, he wrote, “to identify the new AT&T Bell Laboratories with the old Bell Telephone Laboratories just because the new Laboratories has inherited buildings, equipment and personnel from the old. The mission was absolutely essential to the research done at the old Laboratories, and that mission is gone and has not been replaced.”

“Things should be done only when there is the possibility of a substantial gain, and this must be weighed against risk.”

In Pierce’s era, the top officer at bell Labs made about twelve times that of the lowest-paid worked ; in the late 1990s, it was more typical at large American firms for the CEO to make one hundred times the salary of the lowest-paid worker. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, moreover, smart and talented graduate students could never be wooed away from the Labs by the prospect of making millions. It wasn’t even thinkable. You were in it for the adventure. “I don’t think I was ever motivated by the notion of winning prirzes, although I have a couple of dozen of them in the other room,” Claude Shannon said late in life. “I was motivated more by curiosity. I was never motivated by the desire for money, financial gain. I wasn’t trying to do something big so that I could get a bigger salary.”


What about Bell Labs’ formula was timeless? IN his 1997 list, he thought it boiled down to four things:

A technically competent management all the way to the top.

Researchers didn’t have to raise funds.

Research on a topic or system could be and was supported for years.

Research could be terminated without damning the researcher.


John Mayo, among other things, offers this “We learned that the impossible is not impossible. We learned that if you think you can do something you may very well be able to do one thousand times better once you understand what’s going on.”

Some of the amazement, however, runs deeper. It resides in the fact that the world of Bell Labs is disappearing, and the contribution of its staff is mostly forgotten. “Frankly,” Bob Lucky observes, “if you ask people on the street who invented the transistor, they don’t have the foggiest idea.”

Jan 2021. Built with Tailwind and Jekyll.