The Idea Factory
The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory

Jon Gertner
Full Title
The Idea Factory
Last Highlighted
July 20, 2022 11:56 PM (CDT)
Last Synced
June 8, 2023 1:12 PM (CDT)

Some observers have taken to calling them “wicked problems.” As it happens, the past offers the example of one seemingly wicked problem that was overcome by an innovative effort that rivals the Apollo program and Manhattan Project in size, scope, expense, and duration. That was to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.

genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.

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number of other engineers so that it would not only relieve Bell Labs’ congestion problems but would organize its scientists in an unusual configuration that could be expanded on a far grander scale in future years.

“No attempt has been made to achieve the character of a university campus with its separate buildings,” Buckley told Jewett. “On the contrary, all buildings have been connected so as to avoid fixed geographical delineation between departments and to encourage free interchange and close contact among them.”

By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices—but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute.

Walking down that impossibly long tiled corridor, a scientist on his way to lunch in the Murray Hill cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.

lightly traveled, and behind the building were hundreds of acres of protected

Essentially Kelly was creating interdisciplinary groups—combining chemists, physicists, metallurgists, and engineers; combining theoreticians with experimentalists—to work on new electronic technologies.

On June 21, 1945, Kelly had signed off on Case 38139. “A unified approach to all of our solid state problems offers great promise,” he wrote.

the coming age of technologies owed its existence to a quiet revolution in materials.

one rogue atom of boron or phosphorus inserted among five or ten million atoms of a pure semiconductor like silicon, was what could determine whether, and how well, the semiconductor could conduct a current. One way to think of it—a term that was sometimes used at the Labs—was as a functional impurity.

unveiling, a modest affair in Manhattan’s

by creating an organization that could be divided into three groups. The first group was research, where scientists and engineers provided “the reservoir of completely new knowledge, principles, materials, methods and art.” The second group was in systems engineering, a discipline started by the Labs, where engineers kept one eye on the reservoir of new knowledge and another on the existing phone system and analyzed how to integrate the two. In other words, the systems engineers considered whether new applications were possible, plausible, necessary, and economical. That’s when the third group came in. These were the engineers who developed and designed new devices, switches, and transmissions systems. In Kelly’s sketch, ideas usually moved from (1) discovery, to (2) development, to (3) manufacture.

In truth, the handoff between the three departments at Bell Labs was often (and intentionally) quite casual. Part of what seemed to make the Labs “a living organism,” Kelly explained, were social and professional exchanges that moved back and forth, in all directions, between the pure researchers on one side and the applied engineers on the other.

But Bell Labs had the advantage of necessity; its new inventions, as one of Kelly’s deputies, Harald Friis, once said, “always originated because of a definite need.” In Kelly’s view, the members of the technical staff had the great advantage of working to improve a system where there were always problems, always needs.

Sometimes, apparently, innovations sprang from cultural necessity—making something that appealed to an evolving society, such as a cross-country phone link or, by 1950, a new Bell product like the car phone. And sometimes they sprang from military necessity—an invention such as radar or automatic gun controllers, which were urgent for national defense. To innovate, Kelly would agree, an institute of creative technology required the best people, Shockleys and Shannons, for instance—and it needed a lot of them, so many, as the people at the Labs used to say (borrowing a catchphrase from nuclear physics), that departments could have a “critical mass” to foster explosive ideas. What’s more, the institute of creative technology should take it upon itself to further the education and abilities of its promising but less accomplished employees, not for reasons of altruism but because industrial science and engineering had become so complex that it now required men and women who were trained beyond the level that America’s graduate schools could attain.

An institute of creative technology needed to house its critical mass close to one another so they could exchange ideas; it also needed to give them all the tools they needed.

The TAs, as they were known, formed a large subculture—a stratum parallel to the one formed by the Labs’ esteemed scientists—where they would exchange valuable information among themselves over lunch. “They were the keepers of practical information,” John Rowell, an experimental physicist, recalls.6

An institute of creative technology required a stable stream of dollars.

Perhaps most important, the institute of creative technology needed markets for its products. In the case of Bell Labs, there were markets for consumers (that is, telephone subscribers) as well as for manufacturing (with Western Electric).

Finally, something else seemed important. “A new device or a new invention,” Kelly once remarked, “stimulates and frequently demands other new devices and inventions for its proper use.”

Or to put it another way, the solution to a technological problem invariably created other problems that needed solutions.

“Few companies are more conservative,” Time magazine said about AT&T, “none are more creative.”7

one of Kelly’s fundamental dictums of innovation—something that could do a job “better, or cheaper, or both”—the cost of the cells and the results in Georgia suggested solar power was not going to be a marketable innovation anytime soon. Sometimes, in describing a new invention that seemed technically brilliant but impractical, industrial scientists would quip that they had found “a solution looking for a problem.”

Building a new product or invention, and then putting it into the working telephone system, demanded perfection. Systems engineers—the ones who looked at new ideas and decided whether they could improve the system—lived by Kelly’s rule: Better, or cheaper, or both.

the relay system produced only a slight riffle of excitement, suggesting that the public had come to take for granted easy coast-to-coast communications. Microwave towers would shape the future of telecommunications, as well as the fate of Bell Laboratories.

But satellites seemed to be the perfect problem for this solution.

When someone asked him for his reaction to the Sputnik launch, Pierce said, “It’s like a writer of detective stories going home and finding a body in his living room.”7

The passive satellite was certainly a big ball of wax, but the active satellite, in Pierce’s view, was too big a ball of wax.

Pierce would later observe that Project Echo proceeded quickly and smoothly in part because it was considered eccentric: Few people in the business community perceived its practical importance, and as a result Pierce and his crew on Crawford Hill were largely left alone.

The point of a successful research project like Echo, after all, was to hand it off to the Labs’ development group. And the contrasts between the research and development approaches were substantial. Echo was done on a shoestring, at a cost of less than $2 million, with a staff of about three dozen men. Telstar—the rocket launch alone, billed by NASA to AT&T, cost $3 million—was a development project that required the work of more than five hundred Bell Labs scientists and engineers.

In the end, though, it 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 synchronous use of sixteen inventions patented at the Labs over the 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.

Soon after, a British band called the Tornados released an instrumental homage to the satellite, aptly named “Telstar,” that became a number one hit in both the United States and England.

But Shockley and Pierce used Bell Labs’ resources to create “a new kind of science—one that was ‘deep’ but at the same time closely coupled with human affairs.” In Baker’s view, the Young Turks succeeded for the first time in bridging the gap between the best science of the academy and the important applications that a modern society needed.25 Baker,

Mistakes of perception are not the same as mistakes of judgment, though. In the latter, an idea that developers think will satisfy a need or want does not.

But to an innovator, being early is not necessarily different from being wrong. And in any event the Picturephone’s rejection in the marketplace was swift and decisive.

Kelly’s tack was akin to saying: Locate the missing puzzle piece first. Then do the puzzle.

In testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1977, John Pierce gave a slightly more elaborate explanation. “The only really important thing about communication is how well it serves man,” he said.

His larger view of innovation, as a result, was that a great institution with the capacity for both research and development—a place where a “critical mass” of scientists could exchange all kinds of information and consult with one another for explanations—was the most fruitful way to organize what he called “creative technology.” A corollary to his vision was that size and employee numbers were not the only crucial aspect.

But Kelly believed the most valuable ideas arose when the large group of physicists bumped against other departments and disciplines, too.

“It’s the interaction between fundamental science and applied science, and the interface between many disciplines, that creates new ideas,” explains Herwig Kogelnik, the laser scientist. This may indeed have been Kelly’s greatest insight.

But the Silicon Valley process that Kleiner helped develop was a different innovation model from Bell Labs. It was not a factory of ideas; it was a geography of ideas. It was not one concentrated and powerful machine; it was the meshing of many interlocking small parts grouped physically near enough to one another so as to make an equally powerful machine.

Perhaps the only thing lacking is that venture firms are averse, understandably, to funding an entrepreneur seeking out new and fundamental knowledge.

The value of the old Bell Labs was its patience in searching out new and fundamental ideas, and its ability to use its immense engineering staff to develop and perfect those ideas.

“You see, out of fourteen people in the Bell Laboratories,” he once remarked, “only one is in the Research Department, and that’s because pursuing an idea takes, I presume, fourteen times as much effort as having it.”

Kelly, for instance, who toiled for decades to improve and perfect the vacuum tube, effectively lobbied for a research program on the transistor that, when it succeeded, rendered his entire previous career in science irrelevant.

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.”15

But Bell Labs’ history demonstrates that the truth is actually far more complicated. It also suggests that we tend to misinterpret the value of markets. What seems more likely, as the science writer Steven Johnson has noted in a broad study of scientific innovations, is that creative environments that foster a rich exchange of ideas are far more important in eliciting important new insights than are the forces of competition.

Indeed, one might concede that market competition has been superb at giving consumers incremental and appealing improvements. But that does not mean it has been good at prompting huge advances (such as those at Bell Labs, as well as those that allowed for the creation of the Internet, for instance, or, even earlier, antibiotics).

There may be one other observation worth adding to Pierce’s list. In recounting what he learned from Bell Labs, 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.”

One place to consider is a complex of buildings set amid a 689-acre campus some thirty miles north of Washington, D.C. Known as Janelia Farm, the campus serves as an elite research center for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Janelia opened in 2006 with the intent of attacking the most basic biomedical research problems; it is patterned after Bell Labs and backed by a multibillion-dollar endowment.

As U.S. secretary of energy, Steven Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for his research at Bell Labs in the early 1980s, has proposed a number of research projects to spur clean energy innovation. Chu calls these projects “innovation hubs,” which are effectively meant to function as miniature copies of his old employer.

Chu said in 2009 at a U.S. Senate committee hearing, “the Department of Energy must strive to be the modern version of Bell Labs in energy research.”

And in this respect, Bell Labs’ other dimension—the ability to exhaustively develop a product and get it ready for mass manufacturing and deployment—is perhaps even more crucial.

To think long-term toward the revolutionary, and to simultaneously think near-term toward manufacturing, comprises the most vital of combinations.

In the spring of 1923, an editor at the New York Times wrote to Frank Jewett, soon to become Bell Labs’ first president, and invited him to contribute to a symposium of ideas sponsored by the newspaper. Jewett agreed, and his four-hundred-word piece, appearing on the May 20, 1923, front page, set the tone for the edition. “Water, Energy Limited; Scientists Look to the Sun Next,” the headline read. Jewett wrote, “It seems clear that a great, if not the greatest, present day need is the development of some new source of cheap utilizable energy.” With the tools of “research and invention,” Jewett urged scientists to figure out ways to take advantage of solar or tidal power, or “fuel from the luxuriant vegetable growths of the tropics”—a predecessor, most likely, of today’s biofuels.25 The question the Times editor had posed to Jewett was, “What invention does the world need most?”

To him, the essence of Bell Labs was its immense and complete institutional capabilities—how it could develop anything from the tiniest element of a small electronic device to the grand plan for a national network; also, how it could develop people, turning callow college graduates into competent researchers and managers. As a result, it could solve the biggest of problems.

the great men versus the yeomen; the famous versus the forgotten—is insoluble. Or maybe the argument is easily deflected. Perhaps the most significant thing was that Bell Labs had both kinds of people in profusion, and both kinds working together.