last updated: July 20, 2020
I read this book during while quarantined and it drastically changed how I view progress. If you decide to read the book yourself (which I highly recommend), brace yourself. My mind was literally buzzing so often while reading that I had to put the book down on numerous occasions, as I tried to process the dense collection of great ideas. There is such an onslaught of invention, brilliance, and novel paradigms that you might feel a tug to jump into research as a career and even a moral injunction. It's not necessarily a bad tug, but I want you to know what you're getting yourself into before you start. Consider yourself warned.
Bell Labs, the research arm of Ma Bell (also composed of Western Electric and AT&T), was the powerhouse of innovation in the 20th Century, marching on through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Vacuum tubes, transistors, silicon solar cells, information theory, lasers, satellites, industrialized fiber optics, mobile phones... Home to over 26,000 patents and 11 Nobel Prize winners (eleven!), the Labs would build almost the entire foundation of the Information Age that we still enjoy today.
Studying "The Idea Factory" reveals several interesting ideas about the lifecycle of innovation - ideas that easily carry to our understanding of progress today. Below are some of the most intriguing ones I came across:
The birth of the industrial lab
Before Bell Labs, any industrial problem was solved primarily by engineers. The industrial lab challenged this assumption, proposing a new approach that looked instead to scientists. It was designed to be "an organization of intelligent men, presumably of creative capacity, specially trained in […] science, and provided with the facilities and wherewithal to study and develop the particular industry with which they are associated."
To be clear, though, the lab was not a place to find good ideas. The leaders of the company would often repeat the notion that there were plenty of good ideas out there, almost too many. Mainly, they were looking for good problems. Fortunately, the phone system was a "problem-rich environment." The lab began humbly enough, with a budget of $12 million ($150 million today), but would eventually become a powerhouse of invention.
Out of it would rise a formidable group of scientists - several of whom would go on to win the Nobel Prize - who called themselves the Young Turks (an allusion to their trouble-making tendencies). These men (for they were all men) came to Bell with an interest in attacking the hard, fundamental questions of science - something that not many people thought could be done outside of the world's great universities. But Shockley, Pierce, and co. would use the resources of Bell Labs to create a "new kind of science - one that was 'deep' but at the same time closely coupled with human affairs."
Filtering genius into the Labs
Most of the scientists of Bell Labs had been trained at first-rate graduate schools like MIT and Chicago and Caltech; they had been flagged by physics or chemistry or engineering professors at these places and their names had been quietly passed along to Kelly or someone else at the Labs. Here is an excerpt from a letter sent by management at the Labs: “Let us have one or two, or even three, of the best of the young men who are taking their doctorates with you and are intimately familiar with your field. Let us take them into our laboratory in New York and assign to them the sole task of developing a telephone repeater.”
But most of the scientists who found themselves at the Labs had something else in common: they had been raised in fly-speck towns, intersections of nowhere and nowhere. Almost all of them had found a way out — often through a high school teacher who noticed something unusual about them. Maybe it was a startling knack for mathematics, or an insatiable curiosity about electricity, nurtured with extra assignments or after-school tutoring, all in the hope (never explained to the young men but gratefully acknowledged many years later) that the students could be pushed toward a local university and away from a life behind a plow or a cash register. One common marker of their childhood was a peculiar desire to know more about the stars or the telephone lines or (most often) the radio, and especially their makeshift home wireless sets. Almost all of them had put one together themselves, and in turn had discovered how sound could be pulled from the air. I delve into this more in
The importance of idle curiosity
Why did people come to work at the Labs? Because they were curious. Claude Shannon, father of information theory (among several other breakthrough ideas), would say, "I was never motivated by the desire for money, financial gain. I wasn't trying to do something so that I could get a bigger salary. I was more motivated by curiosity." It is worth noting, though, that the top officer at Bell Labs made about 12 that of the lowest-paid worker, while in just the 1990s, that number skyrocketed to 100x. Additionally, in the 1940s and 1950s, smart and talented graduate students could never be wooed away from the labs by the prospect of making millions. So, with money disqualified as a motivator, those that remained were there for the adventure.
Examples of curious groups
As a case study in curiosity, we can look at how Bell Labs came to exert its influence on quantum mechanics. As the field began to emerge, there were not many people contemplating its deep surprises. One place to learn about these ideas was the upper floor of the Bell Labs West Street offices, where a large auditorium served as a place for Bell Labs functions and a forum for new ideas. In the 1920s, a one-hour colloquium was set up at 5 pm on Mondays so that outside scholars (like the titans Millikan and Fermi) or inside scholars could lecture members of the Bell Labs technical staff on recent scientific developments. Another place to learn about the new ideas was the local universities. The Great Depression, as it happened, was a boon for scientific knowledge. Bell Labs had been forced to reduce its employees’ hours, but some of the young staffers, now with extra time on their hands, had signed up for academic courses at Columbia University in uptown Manhattan.
Some formed study groups where they would make their way through scientific textbooks, one chapter a week, and take turns lecturing one another on the newest advances in theoretical and experimental physics. As the study group wound down for the evening, the men would often make their way over to Brattain’s Greenwich Village apartment for a drink. By then it was 8 or 9 pm — time for dinner at a restaurant in the Village and then bed. By outward appearances, the study group was merely comprised of telephone men who were intent on learning new ideas.
It was curiosity that eventually led to the formation of a new solid-state group - before solid state meant anything to the world. The formal purpose of the group was not so much to build something as to understand it. The group would spend almost the entire year of 1945 on failed experiments and theories, yielding neither enlightenment nor promise. However, the failures would still be instructive: in 1946, they would invent the transistor. Interestingly, the unveiling of the two most important technologies of the twentieth century — the atomic bomb and the transistor — occurred almost exactly three years apart. It is also worth noting that, unlike the bomb, the tiny device they created meant very little to the press, who could not appreciate the incredible impact it would have.
There was also the famed mathematics department, where all the smart minds that didn't fit anywhere else got slotted. Each member had a major topic they were working on, but that wasn't their real value. They job "was to stick their nose in everybody's business," and they couldn't turn a good problem down. This recipe - of unbridling curious minds in the face of interesting problems - was an incredibly effective one.
Keeping it inter-disciplinary
Mervin Kelly, president of Bell Labs from 1951 to 1959, understood the value of interdisciplinary teams. As Bell Labs transitioned into peacetime, he would begin to combine chemists, physicists, metallurgists, and engineers - theoreticians with experimentalists - to work on new electronic technologies.
This is perhaps best seen in his design of Murray Hill, a new state-of-the-art laboratory that would serve as headquarters of the company from 1967 onwards. Crucially, it was designed so that everyone would be in one another's way, with inconvenient and crowded hallways. In Kelly's view, physical proximity was everything. People had to be near one another - phone calls alone wouldn't do.
"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. These were formal talks and informal chats, and they were always encouraged, both as a matter of policy and by the inventive design of the Murray Hill building."
The interior of the building optimized flexibility. Every office and every lab was divided into 6ft increments so that spaces could be expanded or shrunk depending on needs, thanks to a system of movable, soundproofed steel partition walls. Each 6ft space, in addition, was outfitted with pipes providing all the basic needs of an experimentalist: compressed air, distilled water, steam, gas, vacuum, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, as well as both DC and AC power.
Competition is not king
The importance of curiosity in Bell Labs may shed some light on the changing nature of 'progress.' Regrettably, the language that describes innovations often fails to distinguish between an innovative consumer product and an innovation that represents a leap in human knowledge and a new foundation (or "platform," as it is often described) for industry. However, it seems apparent that Bell Labs housed many of those "leaps," and that today's economy produces many "incremental improvements." Yes, there are 'disruptors' in every industry, but one cannot deny that few of them are creating entirely new fields of science, as Bell Labs did. That is because, in today's world, a company can profit merely by pursuing an incremental strategy rather than a game-changing discovery or invention. In fact, judging by the last 30 years of innovation, it seems that market competition has been superb at giving consumers incremental and appealing improvements. But it rarely yields more than that slow, incremental change.
This goes against the popular American ideal that free markets reign supreme and could even constitute an argument of pro-monopolization. Ma Bell, like other massive conglomerates, faced its fair share of anti-trust battles and sentiment. However, until 1996, the US government decided to protect its monopoly, citing the phone network as "necessary to existence" for the American people, which would operate best as a single system. And, granted, the concessions made during the anti-trust campaigns were boons to the American people, like the agreement to license all present and future US patents to all American applicants. But, the Bell System remained a monopoly, and it was this monopoly that allowed it to gather genius, work on incredibly generous time horizons, and afford to fail on risky experimentation. It was this monopoly which allowed the birth of a creative environment through Bell Labs, and it was that environment - not the forces of competition - that elicited the important new insights that revolutionized our world.
The Bell Labs formula
Of course, many hours of thought and work been used attempting to distill the recipe that made Bell Labs such an incredible place. There are many theories, and surely some overlap between them.
The legendary John Pierce, who helped launch Bell Labs' first satellite, boiled it down to four things:
- 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.
Some other influential factors:
- The telephone system presented an endless stream of technical and logistical problems, which required innovative solutions
- Sheer size of staff allowed for massive projects (for reference, the switching station would taken 2,000 "man-years" to create)
- Long time horizons: managers knew they could support projects (ex: the undersea cable) that might require decades of work
- A constant funding stream that assured consistent support of educational programs
- A sense of mission: to plan the future of communications
The nature of invention
Yet even these boiled-down recipes cannot predict invention, in part because huge leaps in technology rarely have a precise point of origin. It is clear, though, that "invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced." The free-flowing experimentation at Bell was to provide the best possible environment for 'the operation of genius.' Genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could, but genius is not predictable. "You have to give it room to assert itself." On the flip side, freedom in research was similar to food; it was necessary, but moderation was usually preferable to excess.
A common thread, though, seems to lead to good questions. For example, one internal study revealed that certain individuals who were far more productive than their peers, had only one thing in common: they often shared breakfast or lunch with an electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled," he drew people out, got them thinking." More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.
We are bad at predicting the future
The non-linearity of invention means that humans will rarely be accurate in their predictions. To quote John Pierce, "everyone faces the future with their eyes firmly on the past, and they don't see what's going to happen next." Ian Ross (who helped develop transistors in the 50s) would build on this, saying that "the original concept of what an innovation will do frequently turns out not to be a major impact." And it is often the unintended second-order consequences that prove to be so major. As an easy example, the transistor was created to improve upon the current phone system, yet became the building block for computers, switches, and a host of novel electronic technologies.
A final warning
Some key lessons - stay multi-disciplinary, favor creative environments over competitive ones, and prepare for the non-linearity of invention. But above all, stay curious. As long as there are curious people out there, I will remain optimistic about the future. I have no idea what it will look like, but I'm looking forward to finding out.
Also, if you decide to read the book yourself (which I highly recommend), brace yourself. My mind was literally buzzing so often while reading that I had to put the book down on numerous occasions, as I tried to process the dense collection of great ideas. There is such an onslaught of invention, brilliance, and novel paradigms that you might feel a tug to jump into research as a career and even a moral injunction. It's not necessarily a bad tug, but I want you to know what you're getting yourself into before you start. Consider yourself warned.