Our second episode of ECS Podcast features Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Listen as we explore one of the most innovative institutions of the 20th century and how it revolutionized computing and information technology.
Five Questions with John Gertner
Did growing up across the street from Bell Labs influence you to write this book?
I thought Bell Labs would make a great book because I knew it growing up and I knew so many people who had worked there – and even having that familiarity with it, it was still sort of a mystery. I knew that these amazing world-changing things had come out of there, but I don’t think I understood the concept. For me, the appeal was having a kind of basic understand of Bell Labs, but still being provoked by the mystery of unraveling what this place was, how it worked, what kind of effect it had, how it rose and how it fell eventually too.
In your opinion, what is the most remarkable discovery to come out of Bell Labs?
I think the transistor is really the greatest innovation of the 20th century. In terms of impact, the transistor and the story behind it really just fascinate me. For me, what was particularly interesting was understanding the people and the personalities behind it as much as the science. I may have going into writing this book thinking there was a kind of recipe for how they did innovation, but these different breakthroughs all kind different kinds of stories – different narratives and different approaches to solving the problem as it were.
Should we care about how new ideas begin and why?
A lot of this painstaking scientific work really takes a lot of time to gestate. Sometimes these ideas are decades in the making before they bare any fruit. Should we care? Yes. I think we should care for so many reasons, the most obvious is that these things impact our lives in ways we almost can’t imagine living without them. I’ve already used billions of transistors today. Whether it’s my coffee maker or my car or my cellphone, let alone my computer – it has made a huge impact on my life.
How has the model for innovation changed since the era of Bell Labs?
I think there’s a lot of great work being done at universities and national laboratories. A lot of those ideas that come out of research that’s either funded though the school or thought federal grants – it does work. It’s a different model. It’s not the under-one-roof kind of model, it’s sort of this series of handoffs where this idea is kind of nurtured at a university and then given to a start-up and then the start-up might be swallowed up by a larger company, but eventually the idea – if it’s a good idea – does turn into an innovation that does have some kind of impact on our lives.
How important was the interdisciplinary environment to Bell Labs?
I think it’s a good example of how far ahead of his time Mervin Kelly was as the day-to-day head of Bell Labs. What he had seen during WWII was interdisciplinary teams working together on radar both at MIT and at Bell Labs. Really creating things together in time frames that weren’t really thought possible beforehand. He came out of the war thinking that was the way forward. Thinking that the world was entering a period where the technology was really so complex that you needed interdisciplinary teams.
P.S. Make sure to check out this Interface article from 2007 entitled, “From Bell Labs to Silicon Valley: A Saga of Semiconductor Technology Transfer, 1955-61” for more information.