The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways

  1. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? —T. S. Eliot, The Rock
  2. Yet understanding the circumstances that led up to that unusual winter of 1947 at Bell Labs, and what happened there in the years afterward, promises a number of insights into how societies progress. With this in mind, one might think of a host of reasons to look back at these old inventions, these forgotten engineers, these lost worlds.
  3. Edison’s genius lay in making new inventions work, or in making existing inventions work better than anyone had thought possible. But how they worked was to Edison less important.
  4. Contrary to its gentle image of later years, created largely through one of the great public relations machines in corporate history, Ma Bell in its first few decades was close to a public menace—a ruthless, rapacious, grasping “Bell Octopus,” as its enemies would describe it to the press. “The Bell Company has had a monopoly more profitable and more controlling—and more generally hated—than any ever given by any patent,” one phone company lawyer admitted.
  5. AT&T’s savior was Theodore Vail, who became its president in 1907, just a few years after Millikan’s friend Frank Jewett joined the company.11 In appearance, Vail seemed almost a caricature of a Gilded Age executive: Rotund and jowly, with a white walrus mustache, round spectacles, and a sweep of silver hair, he carried forth a magisterial confidence. But he had in fact begun his career as a lowly telegraph operator. Thoughtfulness was his primary asset; he could see almost any side of an argument. Also, he could both disarm and outfox his detractors. As Vail began overseeing Bell operations, he saw that the costs of competition were making the phone business far less profitable than it had been—so much so, in fact, that Vail issued a frank corporate report in his first year admitting that the company had amassed an “abnormal indebtedness.” If AT&T were to survive, it had to come up with a more effective strategy against its competition while bolstering its public image.
  6. Vail didn’t do any of this out of altruism. He saw that a possible route to monopoly—or at least a near monopoly, which was what AT&T had always been striving for—could be achieved not through a show of muscle but through an acquiescence to political supervision. Yet his primary argument was an idea. He argued that telephone service had become “necessary to existence.” Moreover, he insisted that the public would be best served by a technologically unified and compatible system—and that it made sense for a single company to be in charge of it. Vail understood that government, or at least many politicians, would argue that phone subscribers must have protections against a monopoly; his company’s expenditures, prices, and profits would thus have to be set by federal and local authorities. As a former political official who years before had modernized the U.S. Post Office to great acclaim, Vail was not hostile toward government. Still, he believed that in return for regulation Ma Bell deserved to find the path cleared for reasonable profits and industry dominance. In Vail’s view, another key to AT&T’s revival was defining it as a technological leader with legions of engineers working unceasingly to improve the system.
  7. The Vail strategy, in short, would measure the company’s progress “in decades instead of years.” Vail also saw it as necessary to merge the idea of technological leadership with a broad civic vision. His publicity department had come up with a slogan that was meant to rally its public image, but Vail himself soon adopted it as the company’s core philosophical principle as well. It was simple enough: “One policy, one system, universal service.” That this was a kind of wishful thinking seemed not to matter.
  8. “Of its output,” Arnold would later say of his group, “inventions are a valuable part, but invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced.” The point of this kind of experimentation was to provide a free environment for “the operation of genius.” His point was that genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could. But genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.
  9. From the start, Jewett and Arnold seemed to agree that at West Street there could be an indistinctness about goals. Who could know in advance exactly what practical applications Arnold’s men would devise? Moreover, which of these ideas would ultimately move from the research department into the development department and then mass production at Western Electric? At the same time, they were clear about larger goals. The Bell Labs employees would be investigating anything remotely related to human communications, whether it be conducted through wires or radio or recorded sound or visual images.
  10. 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. Men like Kelly and Davisson would soon repeat the notion that there were plenty of good ideas out there, almost too many. Mainly, they were looking for good problems.
  11. Quantum mechanics, as it was beginning to be called, was a science of deep surprises, where theory had largely outpaced the proof of experimentation. Some years later the physicist Richard Feynman would elegantly explain that “it was discovered that things on a small scale behave nothing like things on a large scale.” In the quantum world, for instance, you could no longer say that a particle has a certain location or speed. Nor was it possible, Feynman would point out, “to predict exactly what will happen in any circumstance.”
  12. 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.
  13. “The [Bell] System,” Danielian pointed out, “constitutes the largest aggregation of capital that has ever been controlled by a single private company at any time in the history of business. It is larger than the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and United States Steel Corporation put together. Its gross revenues of more than one billion dollars a year are surpassed by the incomes of few governments of the world. The System comprises over 200 vassal corporations. Through some 140 companies it controls between 80 and 90 percent of local telephone service and 98 percent of the long-distance telephone wires of the United States.”
  14. The 512A was an example of how, if good problems led to good inventions, then good inventions likewise would lead to other related inventions, and that nothing was too small or incidental to be excepted from improvement. Indeed, the system demanded so much improvement, so much in the way of new products, so much insurance of durability, that new methods had to be created to guarantee there was improvement and durability amid all the novelty.
  15. 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. Only in retrospect do such leaps look obvious.
  16. There was something in particular about the way he [William Shockley] solved difficult problems, looking them over and coming up with a method—often an irregular method, solving them backward or from the inside out or by finding a trapdoor that was hidden to everyone else—to arrive at an answer in what seemed a few heartbeats.
  17. 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. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. 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.
  18. Essentially Kelly was creating interdisciplinary groups—combining chemists, physicists, metallurgists, and engineers; combining theoreticians with experimentalists—to work on new electronic technologies.
  19. If the ingredients in the alloy weren’t pure—if they happened to contain minute traces of carbon, oxygen, or nitrogen, for instance—Permendur would be imperfect. “There was a time not so long ago when a thousandth of a percent or a hundredth of a percent of a foreign body in a chemical mixture was looked upon merely as an incidental inclusion which could have no appreciable effect on the characteristics of the substance,” Frank Jewett, the first president of the Labs, explained. “We have learned in recent years that this is an absolutely erroneous idea.”
  20. 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. Indeed, an almost vanishingly small impurity mixed into silicon, having a net effect of perhaps 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.
  21. The formal purpose of the new solid-state group was not so much to build something as to understand it. Officially, Shockley’s men were after a basic knowledge of their new materials; only in the back of their minds did a few believe they would soon find something useful for the Bell System.
  22. On November 17, Brattain and an electrochemist in the solid-state group, Robert Gibney, explored whether applying an electrolyte—a solution that conducts electricity—in a particular manner would help cut through the surface states barrier. It did. Shockley would later identify this development as a breakthrough and the beginning of what he called “the magic month.” In time, the events of the following weeks would indeed be viewed by some of the men in terms resembling enchantment—the team’s slow, methodical success effecting the appearance of preordained destiny. For men of science, it was an odd conclusion to draw. Yet Walter Brattain would in time admit he had “a mystical feeling” that what he ultimately discovered had been waiting for him.
  23. Any Bell scientist knew about the spooky and coincidental nature of important inventions. The origins of their entire company—Alexander Bell’s race to the patent office to beat Elisha Gray and become the recognized inventor of the telephone—was the textbook case.
  24. If an idea begat a discovery, and if a discovery begat an invention, then an innovation defined the lengthy and wholesale transformation of an idea into a technological product (or process) meant for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, could not alone create an innovation. The task was too variegated and involved.
  25. “It is the beginning of a new era in telecommunications and no one can have quite the vision to see how big it is,” Mervin Kelly told an audience of telephone company executives in 1951. Speaking of the transistor, he added that “no one can predict the rate of its impact.” Kelly admitted that he wouldn’t see its full effect before he retired from the Labs, but that “in the time I may live, certainly in 20 years,” it would transform the electronics industry and everyday life in a manner much more dramatic than the vacuum tube. The telecommunications systems of the future would be “more like the biological systems of man’s brain and nervous system.” The tiny transistor had reduced 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 now.” It seemed to be some kind of extended human network he had in mind, hazy and fantastical and technologically sophisticated, one where communications whipped about the globe effortlessly and where everyone was potentially in contact with everyone else.
  26. 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. He had long understood that innovation was a matter of economic imperatives. 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.
  27. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”—“the magna carta of the information age,” as Scientific American later called it—wasn’t about one particular thing, but rather about general rules and unifying ideas. “He was always searching for deep and fundamental relations,” Shannon’s colleague Brock McMillan explains. And here he had found them. One of his paper’s underlying tenets, Shannon would later say, “is that information can be treated very much like a physical quantity, such as mass or energy.”
  28. 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. Information provided a recipient with something that was not previously known, was not predictable, was not redundant. “We take the essence of information as the irreducible, fundamental underlying uncertainty that is removed by its receipt,” a Bell Labs executive named Bob Lucky explained some years later. If you send a message, you are merely choosing from a range of possible messages. The less the recipient knows about what part of the message comes next, the more information you are sending.
  29. (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. This could mean dots or dashes, heads or tails, or the on/off pulses that comprised PCM.
  30. His calculations showed that the information content of a message could not exceed the capacity of the channel through which you were sending it. Much in the same way a pipe could only carry so many gallons of water per second and no more, a transmission channel could only carry so many bits of information at a certain rate and no more. Anything beyond that would reduce the quality of your transmission. The upshot was that by measuring the information capacity of your channel and by measuring the information content of your message you could know how fast, and how well, you could send your message. Engineers could now try to align the two—capacity and information content.
  31. Shannon's paper contained a claim so surprising that it seemed impossible to many at the time, and yet it would soon be proven true. 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. In his earlier paper on cryptography, 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.
  32. 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.” There was an essential truth to this, too—John Bardeen suddenly suggesting to the solid-state group that they should consider working on the hard-to-penetrate surface states on semiconductors, for instance. Or Shockley, mad with envy, sitting in his Chicago hotel room and laying the groundwork for the junction transistor. Or Bill Pfann, who took a nap after lunch and awoke, as if from an edifying dream, with a new method for purifying germanium. Of course, these two philosophies—that individuals as well as groups were necessary for innovation—weren’t mutually exclusive. It was the individual from which all ideas originated, and the group (or the multiple groups) to which the ideas, and eventually the innovation responsibilities, were transferred.
  33. He would acknowledge that building devices like chess-playing machines “might seem a ridiculous waste of time and money. But I think the history of science has shown that valuable consequences often proliferate from simple curiosity.” “He never argued his ideas,” Brock McMillan says of Shannon. “If people didn’t believe in them, he ignored those people.”
  34. 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. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. 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.”
  37. 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.
  38. There was no precise explanation as to why this was such an effective goad, but 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.”
  39. 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. “I tried to get other people to do things, I’m lazy,” Pierce once told an interviewer.
  40. Pierce’s real talent, according to Friis and Pierce himself, was in getting people interested in something that hadn’t really occurred to them before.
  41. Pierce had been correct in some respects about the traveling wave tube’s potential. 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.”
  42. A terrestrial signal could be directed toward the orbiting satellite in space; the satellite, much like a mirror, could in turn direct the signal to another part of the globe. Pierce didn’t consider himself the inventor of this idea; it was, he would later say, “in the air.”
  43. 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.”
  44. Why move in this direction? What kind of future did the men envision? One of the more intriguing attributes of the Bell System was that an apparent simplicity—just pick up the phone and dial—hid its increasingly fiendish interior complexity. What also seemed true, and even then looked to be a governing principle of the new information age, was that the more complex the system became in terms of capabilities, speed, and versatility, the simpler and sleeker it appeared. ESS was a case in point.
  45. I liked Fisk very much. But the combination of Fisk, who didn’t know a lot about what was going on in the bowels of the place, and Julius, who knew everything about what was going on in the bowels of the place, was a good combination.”
  46. Colleagues often stood amazed that Baker could recall by name someone he had met only once, twenty or thirty years before. His mind wasn’t merely photographic, though; it worked in some ways like a switching apparatus: He tied everyone he ever met, and every conversation he ever had, into a complex and interrelated narrative of science and technology and society that he constantly updated, with apparent ease.
  47. 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. Also, it revealed how nimble Baker’s mind really was. “A very small number of times in my life I’ve been in the presence of somebody who didn’t necessarily answer the question I asked. They answered the question I should have asked,” Pollak says. “And Bill Baker was one of those people. And there are other people who just build a mystique and give the impression of a mystique around them. And Bill had that, too.”
  48. New titles might not have increased his influence. By the start of the 1960s Baker was engaged in a willfully obscure second career, much like the one Mervin Kelly had formerly conducted, a career that ran not sequentially like some men’s—a stint in government following a stint in business, or vice versa—but simultaneously, so that Baker’s various jobs in Washington and his job at Bell Labs intersected in quiet and complex and multifarious ways. Baker could bring innovations in communications to the government’s attention almost instantly.
  49. “So often,” says Ian Ross, who worked in Jack Morton’s department at Bell Labs doing transistor development in the 1950s, “the original concept of what an innovation will do”—the replacement of the vacuum tube, in this case—“frequently turns out not to be the major impact.” The transistor’s greatest value was not as a replacement for the old but as an exponent for the new—for computers, switches, and a host of novel electronic technologies.
  50. Innovations are to a great extent a response to need.
  51. In the wake of the 1956 agreement, AT&T appeared to be indestructible. It now had the U.S. government’s blessing. It was easily the largest company in the world by assets and by workforce. And its Bell Laboratories, as Fortune magazine had declared, was indisputably “the world’s greatest industrial laboratory.” And yet even in the 1960s and 1970s, as Bill Baker’s former deputy Ian Ross recalls, the “long, long history of worry about losing our monopoly status persisted.” To a certain extent, Bill Baker and Mervin Kelly believed their involvement in government affairs could lessen these worries. In the view of Ross and others, such efforts probably helped delay a variety of antitrust actions. Ross recalls, “Kelly set up Sandia Labs, which was run by AT&T, managed by us, and whenever I asked, ‘Why do we stay with this damn thing, it’s not our line of business,’ the answer was, ‘It helps us if we get into an antitrust suit.’ And Bell Labs did work on military programs. Why? Not really to make money. It was part of being invaluable.”
  52. 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.
  53. Indeed, a marketing study commissioned by AT&T in the fall of 1971 informed its team that “there was no market for mobile phones at any price.” Neither man agreed with that assessment. Though Engel didn’t perceive it at the time, he later came to believe that marketing studies could only tell you something about the demand for products that actually exist. Cellular phones were a product that people had to imagine might exist.
  54. Pierce later remarked that one thing about Kelly impressed him above all else: It had to do with how his former boss would advise members of Bell Labs’ technical staff when they were asked to work on something new. Whether it was a radar technology for the military or solid-state research for the phone company, Kelly did not want to begin a project by focusing on what was known. He would want to begin by focusing on what was not known. As Pierce explained, the approach was both difficult and counterintuitive. It was more common practice, at least in the military, to proceed with what technology would allow and fill in the gaps afterward. Kelly’s tack was akin to saying: Locate the missing puzzle piece first. Then do the puzzle.
  55. Shannon had become wealthy, too, through friends in the technology industry. He owned significant shares in Hewlett-Packard, where his friend Barney Oliver ran the research labs, and was deeply invested in Teledyne, a conglomerate started by another friend, Henry Singleton. Shannon sat on Teledyne’s board of directors.
  56. “Ideas and plans are essential to innovation,” he remarked, “but the time has to be right.”
  57. “It is just plain silly,” he wrote, “to identify the new AT&T Bell Laboratories with the old Bell Telephone Laboratories just because the new Laboratories has inherited buildings, equipment and personnel from the old. The mission was absolutely essential to the research done at the old Laboratories, and that mission is gone and has not been replaced.”
  58. At the time of the breakup, in fact, it was widely assumed in the business press that IBM and AT&T would now struggle for supremacy. What undermined such an assumption was the historical record: Everything Bell Labs had ever made for AT&T had been channeled into a monopoly business. “One immediate problem for which no amount of corporate bulk can compensate is the firm’s lack of marketing expertise,” one journalist, Christopher Byron of Time, noted. It was a wise point. Bell Labs and AT&T had “never really had to sell anything.”3 And when they had tried—as was the case with the Picturephone—they failed. Government regulation, as AT&T had learned, could be immensely difficult to manage and comply with. But markets, they would soon discover, were simply brutal. AT&T’s leaders, such as CEO Charlie Brown, “had never had the experience or the training to compete,” Irwin Dorros, a former Bell Labs and AT&T executive, points out. “They tried to apply the skills that they grew up with, and it didn’t work.” In later years, the downsizing at Bell Labs, in terms of both purpose and people, would mostly be linked to this inability to compete.
  59. The purpose of innovation is sometimes defined as new technology. But the point of innovation isn’t really technology itself. The point of innovation is what new technology can do. “Better, or cheaper, or both”—Kelly’s rule—is one way to think about this goal.
  60. 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. “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.
  61. Eugene Kleiner, moreover, a founding partner at the premier venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, was originally hired by Bill Shockley at his ill-fated semiconductor company. 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. The Valley model, in fact, was soon so productive that it became a topic of study for sociologists and business professors. They soon bestowed upon the area the title of an “innovation hub.”
  62. “You may find a lot of controversy over how Bell Labs managed people,” John Mayo, the former Bell Labs president, says. “But keep in mind, I don’t think those managers saw it that way. They saw it as: How do you manage ideas? And that’s very different from managing people. So if you hear something negative about how John Pierce managed people, I’d say, well, that’s not surprising. Pierce wasn’t about managing people. Pierce was about managing ideas. And you cannot manage ideas and manage people the same way. It just doesn’t work. So if somebody tells you Pierce wasn’t a great manager . . . you say, of what?”
  63. Pierce, to put it simply, was asking himself: What about Bell Labs’ formula was timeless? In his 1997 list, he thought it boiled down to four things: 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.
  64. 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.
  65. To think long-term toward the revolutionary, and to simultaneously think near-term toward manufacturing, comprises the most vital of combinations.

What I got out of it

  1. The dominance of AT&T and how they were able to structure the organization to take advantage of the talent at Bell Labs was great to learn more about. Having to build or invent something which will have to go to market is important, having a diverse group of people who interact often, and "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."