In many respects, “innovation” is the buzzword of the 21st century. Corporations, entrepreneurs and research institutions tout its value as they seek to generate new knowledge, products and services.
But where does innovation come from? And how can we make it integral to our organizations? Journalist Jon Gertner offers some fascinating insights into these questions in “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”
In its heyday, Bell Labs was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory in the world. Established in the 1920s by AT&T at a time when the telephone company operated as a government-endorsed monopoly, Bell Labs was charged with inventing the future of telecommunications.
Located first in lower Manhattan and later on a sprawling site in Murray Hill, N.J., Bell Labs attracted some of the country’s most brilliant minds, including William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, and Claude Shannon, a soft-spoken eccentric who liked to unicycle down the halls of Bell Labs while juggling and who is credited with developing Information Theory, the basis of digital communication.
During the greater part of the 20th century, an amazing array of innovations came from Bell Labs. In addition to the transistor and Information Theory, its scientists developed lasers, the first silicon solar cells and the first active communications satellite.
Bell Labs’ accomplishments also include advances in computer languages and in computer-generated speech, ideas on how to build a cellular phone system and the development of a device that forms the basis for all digital photography.
Gertner tells this complex and fascinating story by focusing on a handful of Bell Labs scientists and managers who played a central role in the labs’ major innovations and accomplishments. Along with Shockley and Shannon, there was Mervin Kelly, research director and later president, who was described by one colleague as “an almost supernatural force” and who pioneered a workplace culture that encouraged collaboration and the free exchange of ideas. Kelly believed that physical proximity, as well as organizational structure, was essential for interdisciplinary collaboration to occur. He also believed that a critical mass of talented people were necessary to foster the creative exchange of ideas.
The breakup of AT&T in the 1980s resulted in the demise of the “old” Bell Labs, although a much smaller lab continues today as part of Alcatel-Lucent.
But the impact of this venerable institution continues to reverberate in the 21st century as a new generation of organizations and entrepreneurs tackle fresh challenges and advance technologies that had their beginnings at Bell Labs. “The Idea Factory” not only is a fascinating history lesson; it also offers insights and ideas with great relevance for the future.