The transistor. The communications satellite. The coaxial cable. The fiber optics cable. The integrated circuit. The solar cell. The cell phone. The charge-coupled device. Stereo recording. High frequency radar. C programming language. C++. UNIX. Information theory. And of course, the Picturephone. These technological innovations and ideas (and much, much more) came out of one place: Bell Labs.
In The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner explores the people who made AT&T the most inventive company in the 20th Century. From Claude Shannon to Bill Shockley, Bell Labs was able to recruit the brightest young minds in physics, math, engineering, and chemistry to make the telephone system universal, but also better and cheaper. Gertner provides an accessible, well-paced history of Bell Labs. However, he is also concerned with how innovation happens. What made Bell Labs so special? How was the research wing of ONE company able to transform our world so drastically?
After finishing The Idea Factory, I’m left with: “What would the world look like today without Bell Labs?” I wonder if we would still answer the phone with “ahoy-hoy” and watch what we say because Mrs. McGregor from down the street is listening in. More than that, would you be able to watch Game of Thrones or text your friend or read this review on your computer (let alone your phone or tablet)? Something to think about when you pick up The Idea Factory.