Dear Commons Community,
Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, has an article in today’s New York Times. He covers the spirit of one of America’s corporate jewels that has contributed much to our social and economic fabric. Bell Labs for most of the 20th century was synonymous with new ideas and new industries. The solar cell, fiber optic cable, and communications satellites were among its firsts. Gertner juxtaposes Bell Labs with the technology companies in Silicon Valley, the Googles, and the Facebooks. For example:
“In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.” This sounds like the quaint pursuit of men who carried around slide rules and went to bed by 10 o’clock. But it was not.
Consider what Bell Labs achieved. For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. On any list of its inventions, the most notable is probably the transistor, invented in 1947, which is now the building block of all digital products and contemporary life.”
Perhaps the most intriguing observation/commentary is the answer to the question:
How can we explain how one relatively small group of scientists and engineers, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey over a relatively short span of time, come out with such an astonishing cluster of new technologies and ideas? They invented the future, which is what we now happen to call the present. And it was not by chance or serendipity. They knew something. But what?
“At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. Probably Mr. Kelly’s name does not ring a bell. Born in rural Missouri to a working-class family and then educated as a physicist at the University of Chicago, he went on to join the research corps at AT&T. Between 1925 and 1959, Mr. Kelly was employed at Bell Labs, rising from researcher to chairman of the board. In 1950, he traveled around Europe, delivering a presentation that explained to audiences how his laboratory worked.
His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.”
This article is a well-worth read. Thank you Mr. Gertner!