Wednesday, 1 May 2013

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

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

Tim Wu’s The Master Switch mentioned Bell Labs several times, and I was intrigued. Saw this sitting on the shelf at the library and grabbed it. 

Bell Labs was the R&D arm of AT&T. 
For a long time it was the biggest, richest corporation in the world, and the largest single employer. While there is a lot to be said against a massive monopoly, I wonder whether it was the case that only a company this large was capable of providing the level of service they did. They really saw their government granted domination of the market as a sacred trust. They felt it was their duty to provide a high level of service and quality to their customers. As the book says: “The overseers of the phone company, these top-hatted executives at AT&T, were mercenary and aggressive and as arrogant as any captains of industry. But the phone service offered to subscribers was reliable and of high quality and not terribly expensive.”

The things that we now take utterly for granted or have become obsolete, were at one time completely new technologies. Whole teams of chemists worked for a long time on sheathing for the phone cables that could withstand moisture and extreme variations of temperature. Then there were whole teams of chemists who had to spend years on devising an insulator to go between the sheathing and the cable. Whole fields were planted with poles of different woods, coated in a wide variety of chemical slurries and left there for decades to see which ones withstood the test of time and climate best. There were no such things as devices to measure signal strength or channel capacity - engineers at Bell Labs had to invent those. It’s easy to forget how incredibly complex the phone system was and is.

Another aspect of Bell Labs I thought was interesting was how everyone in different department was encouraged to go visit members of other departments to learn about what they did, to unreservedly help people from other departments if they came and asked for your help, and to spend time essentially “goofing around”. A lot of worthwhile things came from going off on wild tangents, or helping someone else with their harebrained scheme.

The place was filled with mad scientists (some delightfully so, some who took some sinister turns later in life), including Mervin KellyJohn R. Pierce
 Claude ShannonWilliam ShockleyBill Baker and many others.

The place was solely or largely responsible for radio astronomy, vacuum tubes, transistors and solid-state electronics, lasers, microwaves, C and C++ programming language, Unix operating system, photovoltaic cells, information theory, pulse code modulation, cellular communication, solar cells and many, many other things. Tens of thousands of patents were awarded to Bell Labs over the many decades of its existence. It spawned 7 Nobel Prizes, as well as Turing Prizes, Comstock Prizes, Kyoto Prizes, etc.

As William O. Baker said to a Senate Subcommittee looking to dismantle the monopoly, the Bell Labs “allowed human creativity to be converted to human benefits.”

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