Bell labs and innovation - the organisation of genius
Bell lab


“MY FIRST stop on any time-travel expedition”, Bill Gates once said, “would be Bell Labs in December 1947.” That was the time and place of the invention of the transistor, which powered the technology revolution that built today’s connected world. The handful of scientists who gathered in downtown Manhattan to witness the first demonstration of this transformational technology understood that it was special. The transistor was, one observer noted, “a basically new thing in the world” (other Bell Labs discoveries would earn the same astonished praise). The breakthrough was so big that William Shockley, the boss of the two scientists who made it, spent the next weeks in torment until he designed a better version. In doing so he broke a sacred Bell Labs rule—“absolutely never to compete with underlings”—for which he was never forgiven.

The men of Bell Labs (the scientists were overwhelmingly male) are brought to life by Jon Gertner in “The Idea Factory”, his wonderful history of the most influential corporate-research lab the world has seen. A writer for the New York Times Magazine, Mr Gertner does a super job of making complex science intelligible to the lay reader. He frequently evokes a sense of awe at how this army of scientists (Bell Labs employed about 15,000 people at its 1960s peak) made a reality of what even for them was often unthinkable. The first transistor was a quarter of the size of an American penny; now a computer-processor chip the size of a postage stamp contains 2 billion transistors. Intel makes 10 billion transistors every second. Who could have imagined it?

Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T, was created in the second decade of the 20th century. Its original job was to work out how to make telephone calls from New York to San Francisco, but it was also meant to deflect criticism of the firm’s monopoly by becoming America’s engine of telephonic research. Bell Labs grew to do everything, from basic science with little obvious practical application to the detailed work of turning an idea into a marketable innovation. Its later buildings in New Jersey were designed with long corridors to ensure unplanned interactions between people, some of whom were notably eccentric—Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, rode down these hallways on a unicycle—but all were strikingly bright, and several won Nobel prizes. The best bosses, such as John Pierce, were not so good at managing people but were masters at managing ideas.

Now owned by Alcatel-Lucent, what remains of Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self, and not just because its longtime mission of achieving “universal connectivity” has been surpassed. AT&T’s monopoly has gone, and companies care more about short-term profits than costly blue-sky research on the scale Bell Labs once had, even at Apple, IBM or Google. Besides, thanks to Silicon Valley, with its angels and venture capitalists, hot start-ups and billionaire entrepreneurs, a new, disaggregated model of research and innovation is in vogue. But after a few hours of time-travel into “The Idea Factory”, this does not feel entirely like progress.

From the Economist, published under licence. The original article can be found on www.economist.com

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