Book Report–The Idea Factory

Wow!  I am not going to dwell too much on the writing or the methods of the reporting (by all my measures, everything was just fine), but story behind The Idea Factory is amazing.  I am too young (if that can be said about a guy on the wrong side of 40), to remember any of the big inventions and breakthroughs detailed in the books, so most of the information in this book was new to me.  I am suitably awed.  Basically, from about 1920 to 1970 Bell Labs was THE driver for technology development in the United States.  Here is a small breakdown, as I remember it:

  • Bell labs was the research arm for AT&T (long distance company) and Western Digital (phone equipment manufacturer).  It was semi-autonomous, but was funded from the revenues from AT&T and Western Digital.  The company itself was a monopoly regulated by the US government.
  • It was setup to do basic/fundamental research, development engineering, and manufacturing engineering.  Because of the steady revenue stream from AT&T and Western Digital, Bell Labs could spend literally 1000s of man-years and billions of dollars to develop a technology from a basic idea through a manufactured product.
  • At its height, Bell Labs employed over 10,000 people.  On the engineering side, most of the employees were recruited from the cream of American universities (MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, etc), and were, themselves, the top of the class.
  • The majority of the employees, worked in one location, at first in downtown New York, and later in New Jersey.
  • The building that everyone worked in, was specifically designed to foster innovation.  People’s offices were purposefully mixed up so that a physicist could be next door to a mechanical engineer and a mathematician.  In addition, the offices were off of a 700 foot long hallway.  It was generally accepted that everyone had to work with their office doors open.  That way if someone had to talk to a colleague, they were forced to walk down a long hallway and interact with all sorts of people.  Ideas would naturally germinate from this simple architecture.
  • The management of Bell Labs (specifically Mervin Kelly) fostered a research environment where the research department was free to work on whatever they wanted.  Eventually something would come of it.

Here is a list of some of the things that labs invented during its run:

Without these contributions, you would definitely not be able to read this blog post.  The people behind these inventions were fascinating and the stories of the development were interesting throughout.  I highly recommend this book for anyone that wants to know about those that came before.

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