Filtering for Genius

How Bell Labs collected genius, the filter of, and the gap that remains

Bell Labs churned out more brilliant ideas per unit time than any other organization, arguably in the history of man. Semiconductors. Transistors. Satellites. Lasers. Fiber optics. Countless inventions, and many of them have become the backbones of entire industries or ways of life. There have been many attempts to explain and refine the formula of Bell Labs (here I can highly recommend The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner). But one thing is certain: the Labs had a concentration of genius, focused on the common problem of communication.

Naturally, this begs the question:

Where did these geniuses come from, and how did they come to gather at Bell Labs? Essentially, what was the genius filter of the time?

Let’s start by working backwards from some of the biggest names at Bell.

Mervin Kelly oversaw the Labs as president during the 1950s, when information theory was first applied towards binary code systems, and headed the research department before that. Kelly received his PhD from UChicago, preceded by an M.S. degree from University of Kentucky, and a B.S. from the Missouri School of Mines. And before that, a childhood in Gallatin, a small town of 1,700 with three hotels and several restaurants.

William Shockley would lead the team that invented the transistor (and later receive a Nobel Prize in Physics) before going down the decried path of eugenics. We see with him a similar progression: PhD from MIT, after a B.S. from Caltech. Before that, a childhood in Palo Alto, which was at the time a slow place marked by sunny days and abundant vineyards.

Claude Shannon, referred to as the Einstein of information theory, who also founded digital circuit design theory at 21. PhD from MIT, M.S. at MIT, B.S. at University of Michigan. Before that, Gaylord, Michigan, which still has less than 5,000 inhabitants today.

It is a common pattern: talent from first-rate graduate schools like MIT, Chicago, and Caltech was flagged by professors who quietly passed their names along to the Labs. But most of them had been raised in “fly-speck towns, intersections of nowhere and nowhere.” Somehow, they had found a way out, likely prodded towards a local university by a supportive teacher willing to offer after-school tutoring and extra assignments.

And almost all of them had something in common: a childhood marked by a peculiar desire to understand the mysteries available to them: stars, telephone lines, or (most often) the radio. Many of the scientists who would produce ground-breaking research at the Labs had once disassembled and reassembled a radio as children. By analyzing that small and common piece of tech, they had discovered how sound could be pulled from air.

At this, many will shrug with a well-meaning “good for them!” But what appears to be an American success story of science is actually an incredible feat, all things considered. In 1930, the US had a population of 120 million, and 51 million (43%) of them lived in rural areas. And somehow, the geniuses born in both urban and rural areas were herded through a massive funnel, that of American higher education. From there, it was easy picking for professors and departments to identify top talent and direct them to the Labs, which was, at the time, where all curious and bright scientists gathered.

For all its flaws, the American higher ed system was (and largely remains) the mouth of an incredible funnel for scientific talent in the US. The heyday of Bell Labs shows what can happen when all that genius is pointed in one direction (communication) and adequately supported. Today, the funnel is still in place, though its output is far more fractured, tempted by the high salaries of investment banking, consulting, or the potential pay-off of a successful start-up. But the mouth of the funnel is still the same, and geniuses of America will inevitably end up at one of its many universities.

This is not the case in every country. India, China, and many others are still catching up to higher education in the US. Bright minds from these countries may end up at elite universities in the US, but this is usually predicated upon a strong socio-economic position or a state sponsorship. This means that, across the world, there are countless Kelly’s, Shockley’s, and Shannon’s, who have not been ‘discovered’ by those capable of identifying such talent.

Obviously, massive efforts are being undertaken to improve higher education across the world, with incredibly positive results that are a good cause for optimism. However, their goal is usually to raise the standard of education across the board, not to filter out those exceptional minds that only pop up occasionally. Eventually, they will succeed in this regard as well, but until then, it is worth asking how to find the needles in the haystacks of the world.

What are the radios of today, that are being disassembled and reassembled by curious minds with otherwise limited access to top-notch graduate programs?

This is being best tackled, perhaps, by, the world's first fully remote accelerator. Led by Daniel Gross, this online forum is open and free to all, and tries to gamify the startup process and make it as accessible as possible. It is intentionally designed to find the Einsteins and Ramanujans of the world. Its greatest feature is a simple leaderboard, and teams that are at the top of the leaderboard for 2 weeks in a row are eligible to receive funding, mentorship, and a trip to Silicon Valley. Points are determined through a brilliant feedback system, where users rate the progress of other users, and provide comments on why they voted for one over the other. It is a brilliant attempt that is catching the attention and curiosity of various parts of Silicon Valley and beyond.

However, is mainly solving for a productivity filter. Daniel himself has spoken of “hyper-productive” individuals, who are working hard (and smart) to solve many of the world’s problems by applying technological solutions. If someone in an emerging market is very driven and has learned to code, is a great place for them. But this only covers a portion of the radio enthusiasts of the 1930s - not all of them. Bell Labs produced non-linear scientific progress because of its massive pool of idle curiosity, not just productivity. So, the key question: how does one build the of scientific curiosity? How to filter hyper-curious individuals who could become brilliant scientists, not just entrepreneurs?

If this sounds like an interesting problem to you, I’d love to talk more about this at farouk at(@) verissimo dot(.) vc.