The Idea Factory

I wish this book had been available to read at the start of my electrical engineering degree. The laws, theorems, and inventions that I read about in engineering textbooks are central to The Idea Factory, but not as concepts. Rather, Jon Gertner explores the stories of the people who created these concepts, where they came from, what they were like, and how they worked. In class, these concepts were obviously related by their field of applicability, but I never understood that virtually all of the individuals who shaped the modern electrical engineering discipline worked under one roof at Bell Labs. Noyce, Shannon, Shockley—the book fills in the human story of how they arrived at Bell Labs and changed the world.

And the work done by engineers and scientists at Bell Labs is truly staggering. It feels like nearly every piece of modern communication equipment has its roots at Bell Labs. I had no idea that it was the crucible of innovation that it was. And despite the many inventions described, having done further research on my own, the author makes some significant omissions: most notably the development of the the C programming language and the UNIX operating system—both products of Bell Labs that earn only the briefest recognition in the book.

The overall point of the book (in addition to being a detailed, if not complete, history of Bell Labs) is to ask, “Can this type of innovation be repeated?” Gertner makes a compelling argument that, no, our current corporate paradigm makes the Bell Labs model impossible to implement today. AT&T had a government-sanctioned monopoly that allowed and enabled levels of predictable profitability that no company possesses today. That predictable stream of funding enabled scientists and engineers at the lab to pursue problems that they knew were unlikely to payoff in less than 10 years. And in fact, some of the problems they tackled did not become actual products for more than 20 years after the initial concept.

I was all set to leave the discussion there: projects at that time scale are just unheard of today… But then I thought about Google. It’s too soon to say that Google’s apparent culture of innovation will ever approach the historical significance of the work at Bell Labs, but at least two of their projects suggest that Google is straying from the corporate pack. The self-driving cars and Google Glass both are inventions without markets. In both cases the world seems not quite ready for their introduction much like some of the technologies discussed in The Idea Factory. Both cellular phones and satellite communications were envisioned well before they could be practically turned into profitable businesses. It took many more years for accompanying technologies and markets to mature before they could be sold and take their places in history as innovations. We’ll have to wait and see if Google’s work can achieve similar levels of greatness. I hope it does.