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

Category: Engineering
Author: Jon Gertner
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by dekhn   2022-01-06
In the Idea Factory the AT&T execs all have video calling to their homes. There's a lot of great stuff in there as well about how Bell labs helped build the first mobile phone networks.
by tekstar   2021-12-13
If you have not, you should read The Idea Factory.

We owe most of our "modern world" to the hard science done at Bell Labs in the 1900s, before the corporation was singularly focused on quarterly profits.

by fermienrico   2021-01-25
I am currently reading "The Idea Factory" [1], the story of Bell Labs and its innovation streak for many decades. There were so many amazing things Bell Labs worked on - all directly related to solving business problems. At one point, they were given a task of developing the most perfect lubrication oil dispenser with a requirement that it dispenses exactly 15 drops of oil per squeeze of the trigger. They worked on Tractors that dug channels for laying telephone lines to materials that lead to the invention of the transistor to solve the problem of unreliability of vacuum tube based switch boards. Some worked on improving manufacturing and invented what we call Quality Control. Everything was deep and wide, but still tied to the Bell's business.

When I look at Google X and bunch of modern corporate labs (Lab 126, Facebook probably has something, Intel Labs (drones!), Microsoft Labs), I see a whole lotta hoo haa about tech innovation, but nothing with a long term vision of integration, capitalization and sustenance. No sense of practicality and pragmatism. May be Loon is a way to make Google an internet company (ISP), I could be wrong but as an outsider, it feels like a PR stunt than anything else.

Highly recommend this book.


by chubot   2020-11-25
The Idea Factory by Gertner was great, and in fact Kernighan's memoir specifically recommended it for more detail on Bell Labs!

Search for the many HN comments about this 2013 book:

by mindcrime   2020-07-20
I can give you the names of a handful of books that might be useful. Some are more technical, some less so. Some are more about personalities, some about the business aspects of things, some more about the actual technology. I don't really have time to try and categorize them all, so here's a big dump of the ones I have and/or am familiar with that seem at least somewhat related.

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering -

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution -

The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage -

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet -

Open: How Compaq Ended IBM's PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing -

Decline and Fall of the American Programmer -

Rise and Resurrection of the American Programmer -

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date -

Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle -

Winners, Losers & Microsoft -

Microsoft Secrets -

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture -

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age -

Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire -

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture -

The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and The Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer -

Bitwise: A Life in Code -

Gates -

We Are The Nerds -

A People's History of Computing In The United States -

Fire In The Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer -

How The Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone -

Steve Jobs -

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation -

Coders -

Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software -

The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency -

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World -

The Technical and Social History of Software Engineering -


"The Mother of All Demos" by Doug Englebart -

"Welcome to Macintosh" -

"Pirates of Silicon Valley" -

"Jobs" -

And while not a documentary, or meant to be totally historically accurate, the TV show "Halt and Catch Fire" captures a lot of the feel of the early days of the PC era, through to the advent of the Internet era.

And there's a ton of Macintosh history stuff captured at:

by dekhn   2020-06-12
There are several appropriate times in history when the necessary details were aligned for rapid (<200 year) progress from basic manual labor industry to advanced manufacturing. I assume that a mechanical pre-computer like Babbage's difference engine, rather than a fully reprogrammable electrical system, is acceptable.

Certainly within the history of China, India, and various African, Greek, and Middle Eastern cultures, complex mechanical devices with sequencers and even primitive logic gates were being implemented. See, for example describing what the early Bell Labs was like. Many modern innovations came from itinerant scientists who interned at Bell Labs, learned to make vacuum tubes by hand (IE, blowing air precisely into molten glass, and sealing the various electronics in place) and then left to found companies that utilized tubes (for example, Beckman went through this process and used the acquired knowledge to build a vacuum-tube based amplifier which was critical to the modern pH meter).

Now, a few challenges. Since you're just dropping back into a society that hasn't undergone an industrial revolution, you don't have a bunch of useful cross-supporting things like a healthy industry that makes high quality alloy steel for you, or optics companies which design and sell sophisticated lens assemblies for high quality telescopes to debug your work, or electronics companies pumping out millions of standard resistors with tight variances, etc. Without those, many steps that would be trivial would instead take extended time. Also, the absence of a statistical quality culture (see Deming) and the fact that most components will be built by hand by artisans means that your computer will not be very reliable (producing incorrect results, or breaking often).

On top of that, you'll probably face skepticism because your early computers won't be able to do anything useful compared to skilled humans. You would probably do best by finding a local military leader and convincing them you could help with ballistics calculations...

by Defenestresque   2019-03-31
A few months ago I ordered a book on a whim called "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." [0]

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned. There were amazing minds at Bell Labs who were given free reign to innovate (as a direct result of AT&T's huge monopoly and revenue stream) and ended up laying the groundwork for many ideas and concepts we take for granted today.

The book is so dense with information and anecdotes but I'd still consider it a page-turner. I highly recommend it.


by derstander   2017-08-20
I was working as my department's internal R&D director a couple years ago and I was interested in the first question as well. Note that that position probably sounds way more important than it actually was. Coincidentally, it was at one of the places Alan Kay mentions in an answer to the linked Quora question.

I pretty much focused on 3 different entities: DARPA, Xerox PARC, and Bell Labs. These are the books I read to try to answer that question:

[1] Dealers of Lightning. [2] The Department of Mad Scientists. [3] The Idea Factory.

I personally thought that having access to a diverse set of disciplines & skills and a reasonable budget were two of the more important things.

by sethbannon   2017-08-19
For those interested in learning more about Bell Labs, I highly recommend "The Idea Factory". It's a history of Bell Labs, focusing both on the biographies of the engineers and also a meta story about how you create an organization that consistently produces impactful innovation.

by blueatlas   2017-08-19
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

by SaberTail   2017-08-19
I've read that the Bell Labs offices were designed in order to promote collaboration. It was laid out such that there'd be long hallways between the offices and things like restrooms and stairs, so that there'd be greater chances of colleagues bumping into each other and talking about work.

I don't have a copy of The Idea Factory[1], where I recall reading this handy, but that's my best recollection.