The Idea Factory

date Jul 4, 2016
authors Jon Gertner
reading time 37 mins

Reading Bell Labs history was important for me. It’s inventions, work and the works of scientists (Nyquist, Shanon, Shockley, etc) have paved the way for many uses of technology. It can be summarised with this quote:

Finding an aspect of modern life that doesn’t incorporate some strand of Bell Labs’ DNA would be difficult. The transistors, lasers, quality assurance methods, and information technologies have been incorporated into computers, communications, medical surgery tools, factory productivity methods, digital photography, defense weaponry, and a list of industries and devices and processes almost too long to name. Scores of Bell Labs veterans have meanwhile taken jobs in technology companies such as Google and Microsoft; even more have gone into academia, following Shannon’s and Shockley’s example, and passed along their ideas to the next generation.

Differences among scientist, engineer and inventor?

IN 1910, when Kelly set off for mining school, few Americans recognized the differences between a scientist, an engineer, and an inventor. The public was far more impressed by new technology than the knowledge that created the technology.

How the science mastery moved from Europe to USA

FOR DECADES, any serious American science student had to complete his education in Europe, most often at schools in Berlin and Gottingen, Germany, where he could sit at the feet of the masters as they lectured or carried on laboratory research. (The language of science was German, too.) But early in the twentieth century a handful of American schools, notably Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and the University of Chicago, began turning out accomplished graduates in physics and chemistry.

Challenges of building a phone network

These young scientists, many of whom came through Millikan, were encouraged to implement Theodore Vail’s long-term vision for the phone company—to look beyond the day-to-day concerns that shaped the work of their fellow engineers (to think five or ten years ahead was admirable) and focus on how fundamental questions of physics or chemistry might someday affect communications.

Science vs invention

Scientific research was a leap into the unknown, in other words. “Of its output,” Arnold would later say of his group, “inventions are a valuable part, but invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced.”

Basic research, then applied research, then development, then manufacture

generally speaking it was believed that basic research preceded applied research, and applied research preceded development. In turn, development preceded manufacture.

Product development as the focus of Bell Labs

But Bell Labs seemed to have embraced the idea on an entirely different scale. Of the two thousand technical experts, the vast majority worked in product development.

Interdisciplinary group

The industrial lab showed that the group—especially the interdisciplinary group—was better than the lone scientist or small team. Also, the industrial lab was a challenge to the common assumption that its scientists were being paid to look high and low for good ideas.

How recruitment was done

Most 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.

Early indicators of Bell Labs engineers

Almost all of them had found a way out—a high school teacher, oftentimes, who noticed something about them, a startling knack for mathematics, for example, or an insatiable curiosity about electricity, and had tried to nurture this talent with extra assignments or after-school tutoring, all in the hope (never explained to the young men but realized by them all, gratefully, many years later) that the students could be pushed toward a local university and away from the desolation of a life behind a plow or a cash register.

Early tinkering by themselves

Almost all had grown up with 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.

Reduced hours led to more home experiments

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.

One single mission

Oliver Buckley, the Labs vice president, told his new employees, “Our job, essentially, is to devise and develop facilities which will enable two human beings anywhere in the world to talk to each other as clearly as if they were face to face and to do this economically as well as efficiently.” It was reminiscent of Theodore Vail’s dictum of “one policy, one system, universal service.”

Creating the measuring instruments first

Engineers schooled in electronics, meanwhile, studied echoes, delays, distortion, feedback, and a host of other problems in the hope of inventing strategies, or new circuits, to somehow circumvent them. Measurement devices that could assess things like loudness, signal strength, and channel capacity didn’t exist, so they, too, had to be created—for it was impossible to study and improve something unless it could be measured.

Leap and innovation

WE USUALLY IMAGINE that invention occurs in a flash, with a eureka moment that leads a lone inventor toward a startling epiphany. In truth, large leaps forward in technology rarely have a precise point of origin. At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people and ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum and the help of additional ideas and actors. Luck seems to matter, and so does timing, for it tends to be the case that the right answers, the right people, the right place—perhaps all three—require a serendipitous encounter with the right problem. And then—sometimes—a leap.

Invention vs mass-produced

But it still wasn’t immediately clear how to manufacture devices for production. Engineers at the Labs knew that the gulf between an invention and a mass-produced product could in some cases be extraordinary, even insurmountable.

Bell Labs vision

Kelly also thought it likely that the telecommunications industry was destined to resemble, in its nature as well as its products, sister industries like radio and television. Before the war this had not been the case: Bell Labs researched and designed equipment for the highly specialized nature and problems of telephone service. But to Kelly, the era at hand would require different approaches. Deep within the long memo, he noted, “We have been a conservative and non-competitive organization. We engineer for high quality service, with long life, low maintenance costs, [and a] high factor of reliability as basic elements in our philosophy of design and manufacture. But our basic technology is becoming increasingly similar to that of a high volume, annual model, highly competitive, young, vigorous and growing industry.”

Mingling topics and people

“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.” The physicists and chemists and mathematicians were not meant to avoid one another, in other words, and the research people were not meant to evade the development people.

Walking down the corridor

It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point. 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.

Configurable office

Every office and every lab was divided into six-foot increments so that spaces could be expanded or shrunk depending on needs, thanks to a system of soundproofed steel partition walls that could be moved on short notice. Thus a research team with an eighteen-foot lab might, if space allowed, quickly expand their work into a twenty-four-foot lab. Each six-foot 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. And there was both DC and AC power.

Well protected lab

Buckley and Kelly wanted quiet, and quiet is what they got. The roads on all four sides of the complex were lightly traveled, and behind the building were hundreds of acres of protected forest set in a county reservation of rolling hills. In the mornings, before the nine hundred or so scientists and technical assistants arrived, the massive building set amid the greenery had a grand and rarefied hush. The Bell Labs executives had not only built a new lab; they had built a citadel.


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



A more cautious view maintained that the potential new age depended on finding a solution to a cosmic puzzle. Progress, in both technology and business, depended on new materials, and new materials were scattered about the earth in confusion.

Beginning of semiconductor electronics

None of the measurement equipment could pick up the taint, but their noses could. Later, the men also determined that p-type silicon often had faint traces of the elements aluminum (13) or boron (5). This was the beginning of a larger insight. Ultimately the metallurgists Scaff and Ohl agreed that certain elements added to the silicon (such as phosphorus) would add excess electrons to its outer band of electrons; those extra electrons could, in turn, move around and help the silicon conduct current, just as they might in a conductor such as copper. This was n-type silicon.

Purity and controller impurity

For Scaff and Theurer—and, in time, the rest of the solid-state team at Bell Labs—one way to think of these effects was that purity in a semiconductor was necessary. But so was a controlled impurity.


One could readily see that the men on the solid-state team were distinct in their talents as well as personalities.

Experimental science


“I cannot overemphasize the rapport of this group,” Brattain said. “We would meet together to discuss important steps almost on the spur of the moment of an afternoon. We would discuss things freely. I think many of us had ideas in these discussion groups, one person’s remarks suggesting an idea to another.” The group would carry their discussions into lunch in the cafeteria as well.


The scientist must operate at a level of abstraction of which the untrained mind is not capable in order to visualize processes which cannot be seen.” So the theorists at Bell Labs worked on blackboards, attempting to “see,” at a subatomic level, the surfaces and interiors of semiconductor crystals; the experimentalists,

Being sure about the discovery

What’s more, there was a tendency at Bell Labs to confine important developments to middle management for a purgatorial period, lest word of a breakthrough reach upper management too soon. The concern was that research that appeared to be important could turn out, upon closer inspection, to be nothing of the sort. Thus the practice was for a supervisor to move any big news up a step—a week or two at a time, in Brattain’s recollection—only after he was convinced of its importance. The worst scenario would be telling Kelly without being sure.

Oscillating signals

“The acid test of an amplifier,” Bown declared, “is whether it can be made to oscillate.” In other words, if it is believed that a device can truly produce more power than it takes in—the very definition of an amplifier—then there is a way to check its authenticity. It is done by changing the circuit so that the wires are arranged in a certain manner (the output is “fed back” into the input). What then gets produced is a consistent wavering—that is, oscillating—signal, like a sine wave. In communications systems, oscillating elements are fundamental: They form the basis for everything from a telephone’s dial tone to the broadcasting of radio waves.

Finding use cases of an amplifier

This so-called transistor needed, finally, to be better understood. “The most gifted electronic engineers from all parts of our laboratory,” Bown, the head of research, recalled, “were brought into a concerted plan to study the device from all angles and to use it to do the various things an amplifier should be able to do.” It was true, as well as obvious, that those minute impurities within the germanium had helped to amplify a voice signal, just as a vacuum tube might.

Pre-requisite understanding

Bardeen and Brattain’s letter to the Physical Review that announced their breakthrough, meanwhile, was impenetrable to all but an accomplished solid-state physicist. If anyone really wanted to know what the scientists had accomplished over the past few years, they would need a world-class understanding of metallurgy, quantum physics, and electrical engineering.

Atomic bomb and transistor

THE UNVEILING of the two most important technologies of the twentieth century—the atomic bomb and the transistor—occurred almost exactly three years apart. The nuclear test blast at the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert took place at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945. It was in many respects a demonstration of the power, and the terror, of new materials; a baseball-sized chunk of purified metal—about eleven pounds of newly discovered plutonium—could level a midsized city. The transistor, too, was a demonstration of the power of new materials—less than a gram of germanium containing a slight impurity—but its significance was far less obvious.

Demo day of the transistor

The demonstration had three highlights: First, the attendees experienced the amplification properties of the transistor as Bown’s voice was switched (and boosted) through its circuitry. Next, the audience heard a radio broadcast from a set constructed with transistors rather than vacuum tubes. Finally, a transistor was used to generate a frequency tone, thus showing it could oscillate. Bown and his colleagues had spent the past six months considering the potential applications of the transistor. They had no intention of soft-pedaling their device.


Discovery or invention?

THE LANGUAGE that affixes to new technologies is almost always confusing and inexact. If an idea is the most elemental unit of human progress, what comes after that? For instance, had Brattain and Bardeen made a discovery, or an invention? The distinctions could be real enough. A discovery often describes a scientific observation of the natural world—the first observation of Jupiter’s moons, for example, or the isolation of a bacteria that causes a deadly plague. Also, a discovery could represent a huge scientific achievement but an economic dead end.

Transistor, an invention

An invention, by contrast, usually refers to a work of engineering that may use a new scientific discovery—or, as is sometimes the case, long-existing ones—in novel ways. Shockley considered the transistor device, in its various forms (both point-contact and junction, for instance), to be an invention.

Failure: technical or manufacturing

The Labs executives were familiar with the difficulties ahead. Funding and resources necessary for the transistor’s innovation would not be a problem—being attached to the world’s biggest monopoly took care of that. Still, a product like the transistor could ultimately fail for technical reasons (if it proved unreliable) or for manufacturing reasons (if it proved difficult to reproduce consistently or cheaply). Also, it might be the case that there was no market for a new device: Why not continue to keep using vacuum tubes if they remained cheaper and more dependable than point-contact transistors?

What is an invention?

In his view, innovation was not a simple action but “a total process” of interrelated parts. “It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of a new market,” he later wrote. “Rather, the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal.”

Innovation: quantities and market

Bell Labs development scientist named Eugene Gordon, points out that there were two corollaries to Morton’s view of innovation: The first is that if you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated; the second is that if you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated. But these realizations would come together later.

Challenging in manufacturing

To Morton, the essential challenges in manufacturing the devices were “reliability,” “reproducibility,” and “designability.”

Quantity and price

There had been whispers in the electronics industry about whether Bell Labs’ enthusiasm over the transistor was overblown; the reported difficulty in manufacturing the devices only added to the skepticism. Whether it was a shortcoming or an advantage, Kelly’s confidence was almost certainly rooted in his early experiences. He remembered the endless days and nights constructing vacuum tubes in lower Manhattan, the countless problems in the beginning and then the stream of incremental developments that improved the tubes’ performance and durability to once-unimaginable levels. He could remember, too, that as the tubes became increasingly common—in the phone system, radios, televisions, automobiles, and the like—they had come down to price levels that once seemed impossible.

Seeing through the past innovation cycle

As Jack Morton had said, if you hadn’t sold anything you hadn’t innovated, and without an affordable price you could never sell anything. So Kelly looked at the transistor and saw the past, and the past was tubes. He thereby intuited the future.



All messages, as they traveled from the information source to the destination, faced the problem of noise. This could be the background clatter of a cafeteria, or it could be static (on the radio) or snow (on television). Noise interfered with the accurate delivery of the message. And every channel that carried a message was, to some extent, a noisy channel.

Information and message

The first place to start, Shannon suggested, was to think about the information within a message. The semantic aspects of communication were irrelevant to the engineering problem, he wrote. Or to say it another way: One shouldn’t necessarily think of information in terms of meaning. Rather, one might think of it in terms of its ability to resolve uncertainty.


Shannon suggested it was most useful to calculate a message’s information content and rate in a term that he suggested engineers call “bits”—a word that had never before appeared in print with this meaning.

Bits and digital

as one of Shannon’s colleagues put it — to those just getting over the Second World War: (1) All communications could be thought of in terms of information; (2) all information could be measured in bits; (3) all the measurable bits of information could be thought of, and indeed should be thought of, digitally.

Error correcting codes

He showed that any digital message could be sent with virtual perfection, even along the noisiest wire, as long as you included error-correcting codes—essentially extra bits of information, formulated as additional 1s and 0s—with the original message.

Increasing redundancy for accuracy

Shannon had already shown that by reducing redundancy you could compress a message to transmit its content more efficiently. Now he was also demonstrating something like the opposite: that in some situations you could increase the redundancy of a message to transmit it more accurately.

Group efforts

So many of the wartime and postwar breakthroughs—the Manhattan Project, radar, the transistor—were clearly group efforts, a compilation of the ideas and inventions of individuals bound together with common purposes and complementary talents. And the phone system, with its almost unfathomable complexity, was by definition a group effort.

No single innovator

It was also the case, as Shockley would later point out, that by the middle of the twentieth century the process of innovation in electronics had progressed to the point that a vast amount of multidisciplinary expertise was needed to bring any given project to fruition.

Individual vs team

And yet Kelly would say at one point, “With all the needed emphasis on leadership, organization and teamwork, the individual has remained supreme—of paramount importance. It is in the mind of a single person that creative ideas and concepts are born.”

Nyquist and asking good questions

some lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs 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.


If you could get a computer to play chess, in other words, you could conceivably get it to route phone calls, or translate a language, or make strategic decisions in military situations. You could build “machines capable of orchestrating a melody,” he suggested. And you might be able to construct “machines capable of logical deduction.” Such machines could be useful as well as economical, he offered; they could ultimately replace humans in certain automated tasks.

A complex system

Echoing Shannon’s ideas on the subject, Kelly told his audience in London that “the telephone system of the United States could be viewed as a single, integrated, highly technical machine in which electrical currents that are very small and complex in wave form are sent from any one of more than 40 million points to any one of all the others.” Bell Labs helped maintain and improve that system, he said, by creating an organization that could be divided into three

Research, systems engineering

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.

Pure research to applied engineering

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.


Physical proximity, in Kelly’s view, was everything. People had to be near one another. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Kelly had even gone so far as to create “branch laboratories” at Western Electric factories so that Bell Labs scientists could get more closely involved in the transition of their work from development to manufacture.

Failure and experimentation

IN TECHNOLOGY, the odds of making something truly new and popular have always tilted toward failure. That was why Kelly let many members of his research department roam free, sometimes without concrete goals, for years on end. He knew they would fail far more often than not.

Applied science

even for researchers in pursuit of pure scientific understanding rather than new things, it was obvious that their work, if successful, would ultimately be used. Working in an environment of applied science, as one Bell Labs researcher noted years later, “doesn’t destroy a kernel of genius—it focuses the mind.”

What you do outside your work is more important

“You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,” Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, “but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other sixteen and a half hours.”

How the price of transistor came down

In comparison to the vacuum tube, the transistor was still expensive. It had been helped along commercially during five years of incubation in large part by military contracts. For the armed forces, price was often less important than utility; the transistor’s size and low power requirements made it ideal for deployment on ships and planes (and in the Nike systems, too), where every ounce and every fraction of a watt—it used as little as one-hundred-thousandth of the power a vacuum tube required—made a difference.

Technology, price and durability

Kelly told an audience of phone executives in October 1951. “It must do the job better, or cheaper, or both.” Any element within the system was designed (by Bell Labs) and built (by Western Electric) to last thirty or forty years. Junking a functional part before its time had to be economically justifiable. And if it wasn’t justifiable on economic grounds, it had to be justifiable on technological grounds.

Germanium or Silicon?

All of the transistors so far had been made of germanium. But there were a number of reasons to favor silicon. Germanium is far rarer than silicon, which can be derived from sand. If the transistor industry were potentially as enormous as Fortune magazine envisioned, germanium’s scarcity (and its high price) could at some point limit the industry’s growth.

Silicon and manufacturing

When he took some instrument readings, he was shocked to see that the device performed better than any germanium transistor then in existence. In his notebook he wrote, This looks like the transistor we’ve been waiting for. It should be a cinch to make. “Right away,” he recalls, “I knew that this would be very manufacturable.”

Solar panel installation

And then the great excitement of the solar breakthrough dimmed. As Pearson would later recall, the installation was “a huge technical success, but a financial failure.” The solar battery could power the remote telephone equipment with ease. But for the power they generated, the solar cells, at several hundred dollars per watt, simply cost too much.

Under sea water cable

Indeed, the first two tries had ended in failure; the cable layings, done by way of a sailing ship outfitted with a giant spool of copper wire in its hold, were deemed perilous, multimillion-dollar disasters. Cables would snap, snag, kink, and leak; ocean storms would batter the crews and equipment; and in the end, transmissions on the line might work for a couple of weeks before going dead for no apparent reason. But in 1866, a cable—made of better materials, and laid down with more care and expertise—finally succeeded in carrying dots and dashes back and forth between Canada and Ireland.

Beginning of Silicon Valley

Shockley only managed to woo one person from Bell Labs. Mostly, he located and hired some promising young scientists from other companies—most notably Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, Jean Hoerni, and Eugene Kleiner, all four of whom would do much to put Silicon Valley on the map.


AN INSTIGATOR is different from a genius, but just as uncommon. An instigator is different, too, from the most skillful manager, someone able to wrest excellence out of people who might otherwise fall short. Somewhere between Shannon (the genius) and Kelly (the manager), Pierce steered a course for himself at Bell Labs as an instigator.

Human perception on innovation

But as he came to understand, inventions don’t necessarily evolve into the innovations one might at first foresee. Humans all suffered from a terrible habit of shoving new ideas into old paradigms. “Everyone faces the future with their eyes firmly on the past,” Pierce said, “and they don’t see what’s going to happen next.”

Rockets and possibility

There were no satellites yet of any kind, and there were apparently no rockets capable of launching such devices. It was doubtful, moreover, whether the proper technology even existed yet to operate a useful communications satellite. As Pierce often observed ruefully, “We do what we can, not what we think we should or what we want to do.”

Facade vs foundation

Ideas may come to us out of order in point of time,” the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Simon Flexner, once remarked. “We may discover a detail of the façade before we know too much about the foundation. But in the end all knowledge has its place.”

Step by step

Flexner was speaking of the biological sciences; he had seen how the individual fruits of research might have little use—and little clarity—but could accrue over time to create a grand idea. The same might be said about any branch of the sciences, or about many of the large projects in the planning stages at Bell Labs.

Active vs passive satellites

At least in theory, active satellites were better than passive ones. The signals directed from earth to a passive satellite are reflected out in all directions, for instance, so that those received at any one point on the ground might be so faint—perhaps a millionth of a billionth of the originally transmitted signal—that the task demanded extraordinarily sensitive equipment (huge horn antennas, expensive masers, and the like) for receiving even a single voice transmission.

Modulated voice signals

Soon, Bell Labs engineers would put into place a system known as T-1 that used the pulse code modulation technique that Shannon and Pierce had long ago seen as the future. Instead of waves, transmission would consist of modulating voice signals transformed into on/off pulses that were effectively the same as the strings of 1s and 0s that guided the functions of computers.


To Pollak, this was a demonstration not of Bill Baker’s cruelty but of his acumen—in this case to push his deep belief that science rests on a foundation of inquiry rather than certainty.

Transistor and circuitry

The good thing about the transistor was that by the late 1950s it was becoming smaller and smaller as well as more and more reliable. The bad thing was that an electrical circuit containing thousands of tiny transistors, along with other elements such as resistors and capacitors, had to be interconnected with thousands of tiny wires.

Birth of integrated circutis

Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce at Fairchild had different, better ideas. Both men, nearly simultaneously, came up with the idea of constructing all of the components in a circuit out of silicon, so that a complete circuit could exist within one piece—one chip—of semiconductor material. By eliminating the tyranny of interconnections, the method seemed to suggest substantial advantages in manufacturing and operational speed. Their innovation could, in short, be better and cheaper.

Sending more information

For decades, the Bell System had realized that it was far more cost-efficient to mix together many hundreds of conversations on an intercity copper cable—by a complex technical means, the signals could be sent together at a higher frequency and then teased apart at the receiving ends. Sending more information and sending it more economically were often the same thing.


Experiments sometimes literally exploded; results often disappointed; gut feelings frequently turned out to be indigestion. Moreover, new innovations that portended a grand future—the germanium point-contact transistor, for instance—could quickly be rendered irrelevant by a new iteration of a similar idea, such as the silicon transistor or (later still) the integrated circuit.

From telegraphs to complex telephone network

“Within my lifetime,” he testified to the Federal Communications Commission in 1966, “the United States has progressed from a nation held together by post and telegraph, in which the ability to span the country by telephone had barely been demonstrated, to one in which the complex telephone network is an indispensable component, intimately linked with the growth and operation of communities, private organizations, government, public safety and national security.”

Network effect

Irwin Dorros says. “So I can only talk to you if you have one. So how do you get a critical mass of people that have them?” Many years later, a computer engineer named Robert Metcalfe would surmise that the value of a networked device increases dramatically as the number of people using the network grows. The larger the network, in other words, the higher the value of a device on that network to each user.

Purity vs clarity

The fundamental goal in making transistor materials is purity; the fundamental goal in making fiber materials is clarity. Only then can light pass through unimpeded; or as optical engineers say, only then can “losses” of light in the fiber be kept to an acceptable minimum. Two problems stand in the way of this objective, and both plagued early fiber makers.

Mobile phone

AT THE PRECISE MOMENT that optical systems were ready to be field-tested, a group of Bell Labs engineers were putting the final touches on a test system for mobile phones. The two technologies were not in a race. One had moved fast and the other slow. Whereas lasers and optical fiber represented the culmination of fifteen years of rapid innovation, mobile phones had undergone a longer, stop-and-start evolution.

And the pattern could effectively go on forever. The capacity for mobile calling would be far larger than what presently existed. Mobile radio didn’t have to be local. It could be national. Ring and Young hadn’t used the word “cellular” in their presentation. Nevertheless what they outlined—in the honeycomb of hexagons and repeating frequencies—was exactly that. Those hexagons were cells.

Wireless phones

It was a decision that maddened John Pierce, who was a fierce advocate for mobile radio and believed that wireless phones would someday be small and portable, like a transistor radio. Pierce’s notion seemed utopian to many radio engineers at Bell Labs. Most considered mobile phones as necessarily bulky and limited to cars, due to the power required to transmit signals from the phone to a nearby antenna.

Systems engineering

As systems engineers, they were looking at a big project in a comprehensive but somewhat general way. Systems engineers consider all the standards and technologies and economics necessary to make a project work.

Vertical integration

AT&T’s fundamental problem was that it was both vertically and horizontally integrated. Vertical integration meant that the company controlled its research, development, manufacturing, and deployment.

As innovation spread and duplicates

Their reasoning was neither legal nor philosophical. Popular technologies spread quickly through society; inevitably, they are duplicated and improved by outsiders. As that happens, the original innovator becomes less and less crucial to the technology itself.

What is the future worth pursuing?

At the same time, though, IBM had the same concerns as any other technology company. Which lines of research were worth funding? Which were worth discarding? And in which direction would (or should) the future turn?

HP’s initial business and today’s business

Fifteen years before, the Stanford graduates Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had founded a successful technology business in the area. Their company, which the men had named Hewlett-Packard, was focused mostly on building precision laboratory equipment. Shockley’s would be the first business to design and engineer transistors.


In fact, Shannon had never been especially interested in the everyday value of his work. He once told an interviewer, “I think you impute a little more practical purpose to my thinking than actually exists. My mind wanders around, and I conceive of different things day and night. Like a science-fiction writer, I’m thinking, ‘What if it were like this?’ or, ‘Is there an interesting problem of this type?’ … It’s usually just that I like to solve a problem, and I work on these all the time.”

Incremental improvement than a game changing discovery

“Unfettered research,” as Odlyzko termed it, was no longer a logical or necessary investment for a company. For one thing, it took far too long for an actual breakthrough to pay off as a commercial innovation—if it ever did. For another, the base of science was now so broad, thanks to work in academia as well as old industrial laboratories such as Bell Labs, that a company could profit merely by pursuing an incremental strategy rather than a game-changing discovery or invention.

Future and biology

It is the dark side, in many respects, of Kelly’s 1951 prediction, which has proven largely correct, that future networks would be “more like the biological systems of man’s brain and nervous system.” The tiny transistor, as Kelly saw it, would reduce dimensions and power consumption “so far that we are going to get into a new economic area, particularly in switching and local transmission, and other places that we can’t even envision.”

History of modernisation

“The history of modernization is in essence a history of scientific and technological progress,” Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, said recently. “Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries, and the rise and fall of nations.”

Movement of ideas to market

Kelly’s philosophy is sometimes summed up as a belief that innovation occurs by the movement of ideas in one direction: first a fundamental scientific discovery, which is then developed into a product, which is then pushed into the market. The textbook example was the transistor.

Critical mass

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. A large group of physicists, certainly, created a healthy flow of ideas. But Kelly believed the most valuable ideas arose when the large group of physicists bumped against other departments and disciplines, too.

Silicon Valley != Bell Labs

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.

Bell Labs’ formula?

  1. A 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

People » materials

On the other hand, he would say that if the buildings, equipment, and records remained intact but the people were removed, Bell Laboratories would be destroyed. His obvious point was that Bell Labs was a human and not a material organization.

Showing many other people

They were the leaders, even if they weren’t high up in management. If you knew them, you knew Bell Labs.” While it’s true that the handful of famous people overshadows tens of thousands of other people, he adds, if you take that handful away, “you don’t have Bell Labs.”