Remembered as an “intellectual utopia,” Bell Laboratories was once considered a bastion of scientific and technological prowess. The facilities have since been bought out and disbanded for the most part, but their legacy remains in our mobile networks, our electronic devices, and our programming languages. Many of the technologies and ideas developed at Bell Labs 50 years ago are still being leveraged into new inventions and products today. So what allowed this particular lab to innovate so successfully? And more importantly, what lessons can we take apply to the epic issues needing innovative solutions now?
To begin to answer those questions, Jon Gertner wrote “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs at the Great Age of American Innovation.” Says Gertner: “The book tries to capture the intellectual environment as well as the abilities of this remarkable bunch. For me, understanding the lives of the leaders at Bell labs and their ways of managing idea and people was really illuminating. It also helped to demystify why Bell Labs was so successful.”
Gertner will elaborate on innovation and Bell Labs on Wednesday, August 21, from 7:30 to 9:15 a.m. at the Princeton Chamber business breakfast at the Nassau Club of Princeton, 6 Mercer Street. Registration is $25 for members, $40 for non-members. Visit TK or call 609-924-1776. The title of his talk: “Where the future was invented: New Jersey’s Bell Labs.”
Growing up a few blocks from Bell Labs’ Murray Hills campus in Berkeley Heights, Gertner was exposed to the intellectual bustle of Bell Labs during its heyday when nearly 4,500 scientists worked lived and worked in their town. His father was a professor of pharmacology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and his mother taught 1st grade at the local elementary school. Although neither of his parents worked for Bell Labs, the company was a prominent part of Gertner’s community. “Bell Labs was very closely integrated into our lives. Everyone knew the prestige and importance of Bell Labs and what had come out of there regarding science and technology.”
Gertner attributes the direction his career took to this early exposure to science and technology. He has worked in journalism as both a writer and editor since graduating from Cornell University. After serving as a contributing writer at the New York Times from 2004 to 2011, he became editor-at-large for Fast Company in 2011. Throughout his career he has covered features on technology, innovation, science, and economics, and he traces these interests back to the impression Bell Labs made on him as a kid.
“After college I became particularly interested how ideas make a big difference in the world culturally, emotionally, economically. Bell Labs was a good place to look at those questions. The kind of technologies that were coming out of there in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and even ‘70s were ideas and innovations that really did change the world socially, technologically and economically. The questions I began to wonder about were: Why did so many good ideas come out of this place? How did they commercialize these ideas? How did innovation happen at Bell Labs?”
Gertner explores these ideas in depth in “The Idea Factory.” The book takes a close look at the people and the climate that enabled truly monumental and innovate leaps in technology. In the early 1900s, AT&T, Bell Labs’ parent company, declared their goal to “be able to connect any person on the globe to any other at any time.”
Although it took another 50 to 75 years, Bells Labs ultimately laid the groundwork for modern communications and many of the electronic devices we use every day with inventions and innovations such as transistors, silicon solar cells, fiber optic cable systems, satellite communication systems, as well as the foundations of computer languages and operating systems. At Bell Labs’ peak the facility employed around 1,200 PhDs, and had seven Nobel prizes awarded for research produced at the Labs.
Gertner focuses on leaders sprinkled throughout the organization who he felt had significant impacts on the uniquely innovative environment at Bell Labs. Despite the brilliance of these leaders, however, the some of them clearly have their personal flaws. In fact, one went on to have fairly lackluster career after leaving Bell Labs. What was it that made Bell Labs so stimulating and effective? And what was it about the environment at Bell Labs that brought out the best in those who worked there? Demystifying how that happened, and determining whether it is replicable is crucial. It could give us more tools for tackling some of the seemingly impossible problems we face today.
Here are some of the lessons Gertner has taken away from Bell Labs:
Regular interdisciplinary interaction. At Bell Labs, theoreticians mingled with engineers. Engineers’ offices, in turn, were located by near manufacturers. As a result of their close proximity, there was constant feedback throughout the vertical development and research system. This allowed frequent exchanges over how to make a product, and more importantly, how to make it better. Mixing theoreticians, engineers, and manufacturers encouraged the free flow of ideas between different disciplines, inspiring unique solutions.
Give researchers freedom to explore. By creating an environment where innovation was its own end goal, rather than a product with immediate commercial value, the researchers at Bells Labs were free to explore a variety of topics. John Pierce, a supervisor at Bell Labs, believed that allowing research to be terminated without “damning the researcher” played a role in supporting an environment of creativity.
Researchers were also free of financial concerns, and were instead supported by steady funding from AT&T. Many scientists and lab principles nowadays report spending a staggering amount of time pursuing funding, to the detriment of their research.
Have competent management throughout, and trust that competency. Mervin Kelly, one of the presidents of Bell Labs, was known to give managers a big task, the tools to do it, the time to do it, and let them have at it. Gertner wrote in his 2012 article “True Innovation” that Kelly’s scientists “had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorized their work”.
Have aspirational goals. Bell Labs deliberately created a work environment that fed the attitude that their researchers were creating the future. This fostered a rich exchange of ideas, and inspired researchers to constantly push the envelope. Kelly found that it was often the work researchers conducted on their own time, for their own interests, that often garnered promotions and raises.
There are organizations that already benefiting from some of the lessons learned from Bell Labs. Google has adopted Kelly’s approach to encouraging researchers to pursue projects that personally interest them. Google allows up to 20 percent of its researchers’ time to be spent on those pursuits.
People impact the innovation process. Overall, one of the things that surprised Gertner the most during his research for the book was how much the people influenced the science and engineering. “I focused on a small group of bright stars at Bell Labs to understand how they created an environment of research and development that allowed products and innovations to come to the world. People often tell me that they were familiar with the technology that came out of the Labs, but they didn’t understand how the leaders created the environment of research that really led to some of these technologies.” Ralph Bown, a director of research at Bell Labs stated that the Labs’ success can’t be attributed to its location or facilities. “Bell Labs is really the people, not the place”, Gertner summarizes.
Despite the leaps in technology Bell Labs produced, Gertner doesn’t necessarily advocate returning to the big monopolies that allowed Bell Labs to function. Bell Labs was created by AT&T when the phone company still had a monopoly over communication in the United States. As a result, the parent company was able to funnel significant funding into research and development, rather than market expansion. Without a need to defend their market from competitors, there was not a pressing demand for immediate commercial results.
This was a double edged sword. Yes, Gertner points out, it gave the researchers the time to develop new and radical ideas from scratch. On the other hand, Bell Labs’ innovations took a long time to develop, were often expensive, and might not have obvious or immediate returns.
However, we are still discovering how to tap the potential of some of the research developed 50 years ago. This raises the concern that without an entity to fill Bell Labs’ role, the development of new truly innovative systems could die off. Although there are national labs, they are receiving less funding each year, and the great industrial labs are a thing of the past.
“This is both a real concern and a personal concern [of mine]”, Gertner says. “The National Science Academy also has written many reports discussing a potential gap for technology and innovation in the future.” In the current economic culture, businesses are accountable to investors, and organizations often answer to officials seeking reelection, creating a difficult environment to pursue long term research with practical applications not fully understood.
Despite the loss of labs like Bell Labs, their legacies remain in both their technological advances and their strategies for developing intellectual environments. These legacies will hopefully allow the next generation of innovators to tackle some of the monumental issues facing the world today. For instance, some scientists now hold that climate change will not be reversible without technological and engineering solutions. It may be that the lessons from Bell Labs’ successes can be replicated to create innovative technologies and solutions to issues of this scale.
The most powerful message of “The Idea Factory” is not the history or technology information. Instead, it is the idea that innovations are not just happy accidents and that they aren’t a limited resource only accessible to a bygone era. There are formulas, strategies, and approaches we can learn from and use to our benefit. Gertner quotes Steven Chu, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, saying “I believe that to solve the energy problem, the Department of Energy must strive to be the modern version of Bell Labs in energy research.”