There are certain advantages to being a monopoly — beyond the domination, of course. One of them is pure research, the kind done in a vacuum, free from competing business interests and corporate espionage.
For Bell Labs (the longtime research arm of AT&T based in Murray Hill now owned by Alcatel-Lucent) the 70-year, government-sanctioned lack of competition in the telecommunications industry allowed some of the world’s top scientific minds to develop the technologies that make the modern world what it is. Several decades before you could reach into your pocket and call someone from the middle of an empty parking lot, Bell scientists put mobile technology through its paces. And that’s just the beginning.
On Thursday, July 12, at 11 a.m. author and journalist Jon Gertner will present “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” at the New Jersey Technology Council’s annual meeting at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe. His presentation is based on his latest book of the same name, published in March by Penguin Press. Price for the presentation: $75. Visit www.NJTC.org.
Gertner, who grew up near Murray Hill, NJ, is a longtime journalist whose coverage of technology and innovation led him to take a closer look at Bell Labs. “My mother was a first grade teacher and my father was a professor of pharmacology at UMDNJ in Newark, so we had a deep respect for science in my house,” Gertner says.
He didn’t have a personal connection to Bell Labs but grew up knowing plenty of people who did. “Sometimes it seemed that half of the residents of Berkeley Heights worked at the labs.”
After graduating from Cornell with a bachelor’s in English in 1988, Gertner worked as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. From there he embarked on a journalism career that went from editing and writing for weekly papers in New York to being the senior editor at Money Magazine and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He currently is the editorial director at Fast Company, an online magazine focusing on innovation in technology, ethical economics, leadership, and design.
Gertner says he wanted to do a deeper exploration of the subject of innovation — what causes it? How does it happen? And “what made Bell Labs the most innovative lab of the century?” he says. “There seemed to be no place better to study innovation and the innovative process.”
Shaping the world. The digital revolution began in 1947. All these little pocket-sized digital devices we carry around, from smartphones to cameras, can be traced back to Christmas of 1947 when Bell Labs rolled out what it thought was going to be merely a replacement for the vacuum tube — the transistor.
The transistor is roundly considered one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements: a tiny processor that allows enormous amounts of electronic information; the birth of the microcomputer. To put it into perspective, had science tried to construct cell phones based on vacuum tube technology, your cell phone would be bigger than your house.
And though cell phones did not start catching on even rudimentarily until the 1980s, Bell Labs developed and helped build the first cellular phones in the 1960s. This, also, was the time when Bell Labs released the first working laser, which is integral to most modern high-tech devices.
Also thanks to Bell Labs and its inventions, we have had the fax machine, CD players, solar cells, and the Telstar satellite.
How the monopoly helped. With no competition for Bell Labs, there was no reason to rush underdeveloped products to the market, Gertner says. From 1913 to 1984 Ma Bell was the telecommunications industry. AT&T owned every aspect of it. In the 1920s some New York-based executives turned to a quiet, open area near Murray Hill to develop new technologies outside the hustle of the big city.
Under the protection of a monopoly there is no risk of anyone stealing your ideas or your staff, and the world’s best minds (including seven Nobel prize winners) were courted by the biggest game in science.
There was no Silicon Valley and no pressure from smaller companies looking to topple the alpha dog, Gertner says. In fact, the closest competition they likely had was NASA, which also courted the best scientific minds on earth. And a lot of Bell’s technologies were also used by NASA anyway.
As a result of a company so powerful (and staffed by 25,000 at its zenith) scientists could take their time to figure out the answers. Gertner says that unlike today’s model, which follows the Facebook prescription of “move fast and break things,” Bell had a scientific patience that allowed it to figure out how things could really work.
Today’s science is fostered in a competitive environment, which Gertner says is neither better nor worse for research, just different. A current school of thought is that if you wait for perfection, you’ll be waiting a long time. And Bell Labs certainly suggests that such a line of thought is accurate. After all, the technology that made cell phones was started just after World War II, but never really caught on with the general market until after the Gulf War.
But Bell’s patience, Gertner says, allowed for startling discoveries. And the thing to remember is, without those discoveries that took decades to get from Bell’s drawing board to the public consciousness, many of these other rapid advances would not have been possible.
What we can apply today. With the model of monopolistic science and research nonexistent today it might be easy to forget how much we can still learn from Bell Labs, Gertner says.
The first lesson, he says, is that to solve difficult problems, pool a large number of top researchers and let them do what they do; let them innovate on their terms and take the time they need to get it right. Second, despite the fact that Bell’s research was the product of a specific place, time, and situation, basic research fundamentals are still the same. “The way to develop the process is timeless,” Gertner says.
Third, he says, it is important to understand that breakthroughs in science can pay lasting and far-reaching dividends by creating jobs and industries. The transistor, remember, was developed to be better than the vacuum tube. Nobody, Gertner says, anticipated microchips and handheld internet. But look what happened when the applications multiplied from one single invention.
“People today are not really smarter than they ever were,” Gertner says. “But the tools are better.”