Before my grandmother learnt to drive, she stripped down a car engine and put it back together again. To her, it was obvious that in order to drive, she should first fully understand how a car worked. 50 years later, when we bought her first computer, she attempted a similar feat. Having exposed the motherboard, she wasn’t sure what to do next and admitted defeat.
Perhaps we should have saved her time by giving her a copy of The Idea Factory. So much of the technology that underpins modern life is hidden away from us and therefore poorly understood. And so much of it relies on inventions from Bell Labs, which started out designing light bulbs and early telephones, before moving to lasers, transistors and satellites. This book provides fascinating insights, both about the technology itself but also about a uniquely creative organization and its culture that reshaped the way the world communicates. The level of technical detail is expertly pitched. John Gertner, the author, goes into more detail on the earlier, simpler products, such as vacuum tubes or even the humble telegraph poles, which were tested over decades in various conditions to determine the best wood and the best treatments and coatings to maximize their working life. This emphasis on quality, summed up as “better, or cheaper, or both” is hammered home through the book as a central part of the Bell Labs culture.
The high point of the book is the discovery and development of the transistor, which arguably also marks the high point of Bell Labs itself. Many pages are devoted to these small (these days microscopic) components that are now crammed in their billions onto the silicon chips that power our mobile phones, computers, cars and even space stations. This invention marked a watershed moment in modern electronics, ending an era when cutting edge technology could be fully understood by amateurs building radios in their garages. Transistors rely on the quantum mechanical properties of semi-conductors, built in industrial sized clean rooms by huge multi-national companies with billion-dollar development budgets. Yet the way the author explains the discovery makes the magic of the transistor understandable to the non-scientist.
This is certainly a book from which everyone can learn a little bit of science and engineering without needing to solve any equations. Yet the author has clearly set out to write more than a mere technical guide to building transistors. He focusses in great detail on the lives and personalities of the (predominantly) men who staffed Bell Labs. This is a frank account, warts and all, of these revolutionary thinkers and inventors, describing their various strengths and weaknesses. Many adhere to the stereotypical scientist, such as Claude Shannon; brilliant at mathematics, an early love of tinkering and invention yet lacking in social skills or personal charm. Yet there are exceptions, such as Jim Fisk, and these exceptions rise to become managers and eventually run whole departments. It is a valuable reminder that in business sheer brains are not enough on their own to succeed. Managers must be able to organize and motivate teams, understand their employees and take tough decisions to allow the organization to succeed.
Even in a culture as academic as Bell Labs’, which gave much creative freedom to research pure science, a firm managerial hand was always present to guide the work towards their ultimate aim of a better, more reliable, cheaper communications network. This study of culture is particularly relevant in today’s era of tech dominance and the rise of the unicorns. Although based in New York itself, it was at Bell Labs that the properties of silicon were discovered. It was from Bell Labs that Bill Shockley took his invention of the transistor to California. It was from his (ultimately unsuccessful) start up there that Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce split off to found Intel. This was the first in a stream of companies that lead to a swathe of California being named Silicon Valley, after the element that made it all possible.
If Bell Labs can claim ancestry over Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber etc, can companies looking to emulate their successes learn something from Ma Bell? It is here that the book at times struggles to demonstrate the connection that the author clearly wants to show. The scientific research of the 1950’s is hugely different to the all night hackathons of the start-ups of today. The diversity of today’s workforce, although sometimes criticised, is indisputably much broader than the white, middle class male homogeneity of the 20th century.
The links to academia that Bell Labs worked hard to preserve have sadly been replaced by tech companies trawling universities to scoop up post docs and sometimes entire research teams. Not quite so much is given back to academia these days, although exceptions such as Andrew Ng deserve credit when it does happen. Finally, Bell Labs was very much a hardware company; most of the rapidly growing start-ups of today are software innovators. Software requires much smaller budgets, smaller teams and less of a focus on quality control; the “move fast and break things” attitude espoused by Facebook is completely at odds with the Bell Labs’ relentless drive towards quality control and longevity. This allows today’s start up culture to be far less planned, less budgeted, less controlled and managed. The institutional structure of Bell Labs was one of its great supporting strengths. In the modern era it would be viewed as hidebound and inefficient.
The Idea Factory is not a 5-step guide to founding the next unicorn. It is however a captivating insight into the technology underpinning much of modern life, and the people who created it. As a work of science history it is superlative and an excellently written one at that. Rather than taking apart an Oculus Rift, I hope my grandmother enjoys reading it this Christmas.
// Anna Zavyalova