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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great…
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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (edição 2012)

por Jon Gertner (Autor)

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This work highlights achievements of Bell Labs as a leading innovator, exploring the role of its highly educated employees in developing new technologies while considering the qualities of companies where innovation and development are most successful. The author shows how Bell Labs served as an incubator for scientific innovation from the 1920s through the 1980s. In its heyday, Bell Labs boasted nearly 15,000 employees, 1,200 of whom held PhDs and 13 of whom won Nobel Prizes. And at its heart this is a story about a small group of brilliant and eccentric men including Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Thriving in a work environment that embraced new ideas, Bell Labs scientists introduced concepts that still propel many of today's most exciting technologies. In this first full portrait of the legendary Bell Labs, journalist Jon Gertner takes readers behind one of the greatest collaborations between business and science in history. Officially the research and development wing of AT & T, Bell Labs made seminal breakthroughs from the 1920s to the 1980s in everything from lasers to cellular telephony, becoming arguably the best laboratory for new ideas in the world. Gertner's riveting narrative traces the intersections between science, business, and society that allowed a cadre of eccentric geniuses to lay the foundations of the information age, offering lessons in management and innovation that are as vital today as they were a generation ago. -- Publisher description.… (mais)
Membro:Matt_0029
Título:The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Autores:Jon Gertner (Autor)
Informação:Penguin Press (2012), 432 pages
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Etiquetas:to-read

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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation por Jon Gertner

Adicionado recentemente porbiblioteca privada, mring42, hueyy, WesCosand, lvreader, PranayMokida, PamelaG
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> Like Kelly, Shockley rarely lingered over any one project. That he had figured out the essential concepts for nuclear power on his own (actually, the idea came to him while he was taking a shower) merely seemed an intriguing interlude in a frenetic schedule.

> Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war, whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it. This was not a minority view. The complexity of the military’s radar project ultimately rivaled that of the Manhattan Project, but with several exceptions. Notably, radar was a far larger investment on the part of the U.S. government, probably amounting to $3 billion as contrasted with $2 billion for the atomic bomb. … the Japanese squadrons flying toward Pearl Harbor were picked up well before they arrived. The officers monitoring the stations disregarded their readings, thinking the blips to be friendly aircraft

> vanishingly small impurity mixed into silicon, having a net effect of perhaps one rogue atom of boron or phosphorus inserted among five or ten million atoms of a pure semiconductor like silicon, was what could determine whether, and how well, the semiconductor could conduct a current. … Bardeen and Brattain’s device, Bown simply noted, was “a basically new thing in the world.”

> One of his paper’s underlying tenets, Shannon would later say, “is that information can be treated very much like a physical quantity, such as mass or energy.”

> “He was not an unfriendly person,” Slepian adds, “and he was very modest,” but those who knew him and extended a hand of friendship realized that he would inevitably fail to reciprocate. They had to seek him out. And in calling on him (knocking on his door, writing, visiting) one had to penetrate his shyness or elusiveness or—in the case of expecting a reply to a letter—his intractable habits of procrastination and his unwillingness to do anything that bored him.

> the creator of the mystery sentence would stand before a blackboard filling in blank spaces (as in Hangman) and telling them whether their guesses fell alphabetically before or after his words.

> Theseus was a boon for the Labs in making Shannon a minor celebrity in a way that information theory never had. The Labs produced a short movie about the maze and the mouse

> He would frequently receive letters from some of the most notable scientists in the world. And these, too, would languish. David Slepian recalls that the letters would eventually get herded into a folder he had labeled “Letters I’ve procrastinated in answering for too long.” On rare occasions when Shannon did reply to someone whose original query he had pushed aside, he would begin, I am sorry to be so slow in returning this, but…. It seemed lost on Shannon that the scientist who had declared that any message could be sent through any noisy channel with almost perfect fidelity was now himself a proven exception.

> Here, then, was a picture of Claude Shannon, circa 1955: a man—slender, agile, handsome, abstracted—who rarely showed up on time for work; who often played chess or fiddled with amusing machines all day; who frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing; and who didn’t seem to care, really, what anyone thought of him or of his pursuits

> He and Betty bought a grand house by a lake in Winchester, Massachusetts; soon after, Shannon purchased a Massachusetts Transport Authority bus so he could gut it and reconfigure the inside into a perfect camping vehicle—with a stove, bunk beds, and folding tables. In his free time—or was it all free time?—he experimented with a rocket-powered Frisbee, a gasoline-powered pogo stick, and his various unicycles. He also started to build intricate juggling machines where balls and rings weren’t actually juggled by mechanical figurines but were instead moved on hidden guidewires. All the while he began thinking about outfitting a special room in the big house with mirrors—on the floor, ceiling, walls—to create the illusion of an infinite stretch of rooms where none existed.

> AT&T offered two fig leaves. The first was its agreement not to enter the computer or consumer electronics markets. The second concession, at least on its face, seemed far more dramatic: The phone company agreed to license its present and future U.S. patents to all American applicants

> That was a natural monopoly. The whole system—an analog system—wouldn’t work if it was done by a myriad of companies.” But when Shannon explained how all messages could be classified as information, and all information could be digitally coded, it hinted at the end of this necessary monopoly.

> Lucky recalls that during a phone call Pierce might suddenly hang up in the middle of his own sentence, leaving the person on the other end with the impression that a technical glitch had ended the call. No one could imagine that he would hang up on himself.

> Pierce himself was assigned to work in the research department on vacuum tubes, where he was given free rein to pursue any ideas he might have. He considered the experience equivalent to being cast adrift without a compass. “Too much freedom is horrible,” he would say in describing his first few months at the Labs. Indeed, he eventually came to believe that freedom in research was similar to food; it was necessary, but moderation was usually preferable to excess.

> Pierce’s real talent, according to Friis and Pierce himself, was in getting people interested in something that hadn’t really occurred to them before.

> Pierce had a reputation around the Labs as a wordsmith. As usual, Pierce didn’t hesitate before tossing out a suggestion: How about calling it a transistor? That his suggestion was eventually adopted after a vote was, Pierce would say, “my one claim to eternal fame.”

> the office with a five-drawer file cabinet that he had labeled “bottom drawer,” “next-to bottom drawer,” “middle drawer,” “next-to top drawer,” and “top drawer” —Pierce

> Pierce let Wells know that one of his science fiction concepts—an atomic bomb—was coming true: America was building one. He had deduced this from the way most of the country’s good physicists were disappearing and being directed to secret laboratories around the country.

> The new cable that Bell Labs was planning for the Atlantic crossing in 1954 would carry only thirty-six telephone channels at tremendous expense and tremendous risk of mechanical failure.

> So now there were transistors, the horn antenna, the traveling wave tube, solar cells, and the maser. Even with the right electronic components, though, communications satellites weren’t going anywhere yet. There was still no proof that aeronautical engineers had developed rockets that could propel the idea into space. Proof arrived dramatically in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite.

> Eventually they realized that when Baker showed modest enthusiasm—if something sounded very good to him—he didn’t particularly like it. “If he really liked something,” his colleague Irwin Dorros recalls, “then he would use about ten adjectives: that is a terrifically outstanding and superb contribution that has exceeded all expectations, or something like that.”

> Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce at Fairchild had different, better ideas. Both men, nearly simultaneously, came up with the idea of constructing all of the components in a circuit out of silicon, so that a complete circuit could exist within one piece—one chip —of semiconductor material

> the integrated circuit would represent something new for Bell Labs: a moment when a hugely important advance in solid-state engineering, though built upon the scientific discoveries at the Labs, had occurred elsewhere

> The first working laser—the name came from a man named Gordon Gould, a former associate of Townes, who also made a successful legal claim to the invention—was not built at Bell Labs. Nor was it built by Schawlow and Townes. Rather, it was developed at Hughes Aircraft, in Malibu, California, by an engineer named Ted Maiman

> $100 million, which was what AT&T would spend on cellular before it went to market—on a technology that offered little guarantee it would succeed technologically or economically

> many of the essential patents were given away or licensed for a pittance. And those technologies that weren’t shared were duplicated or improved upon by outsiders anyway. And eventually, the results were always the same. All the innovations returned, ferociously, in the form of competition.

> AT&T would agree to divest its local phone companies, which would all become separate corporations in their own right. At the same time, AT&T would be released from the old consent decree, made in 1956, that prevented it from entering into other industries.

> in the United States in my college days, most of the time was spent on the study of political leaders and wars—Caesars, Napoleons, and Hitlers. I think this is totally wrong. The important people and events of history are the thinkers and innovators, the Darwins, Newtons, Beethovens whose work continues to grow in influence in a positive fashion.” Shannon

> Some Bell Labs discoveries in the 1980s were as noteworthy as what had come before. For instance, a young physicist named Steven Chu, who would later become the U.S. secretary of energy, figured out a way to “trap” and study atoms at freezing temperatures by means of laser beams. Another Bell Labs team discovered and explained a complex physical phenomenon known as the fractional quantum Hall effect

> As Pierce saw it, the great laboratories of the twentieth century had a clear purpose: “Someone depended on them for something, and was anxious to get it. They were really needed, and they rose to the need.” For Bell Labs, Pierce noted, the need was modern communications.

> Bell Labs and AT&T had “never really had to sell anything.” And when they had tried—as was the case with the Picturephone—they failed.

> it sliced off its huge telecom equipment division—what had essentially been Western Electric—into a new company called Lucent. In the course of this split, most of the Bell Labs staff went to Lucent, which retained the Bell Labs name for its research and development department. Yet a number of the Labs’ researchers, including many mathematicians, were whittled off from Murray Hill to go with AT&T. This group was relocated to a new AT&T facility, now known as the Shannon labs … Lucent’s revenue plunged. Its stock price, which had peaked at about $84 a share, fell below $2.

> Kelly believed the most valuable ideas arose when the large group of physicists bumped against other departments and disciplines, too. “It’s the interaction between fundamental science and applied science, and the interface between many disciplines, that creates new ideas,” explains Herwig Kogelnik, the laser scientist

> Bell Labs invariably lent some of its genetic material to this process—a number of the new ideas for computers or software relied on transistors or lasers or the Unix programming language, for instance. Eugene Kleiner, moreover, a founding partner at the premier venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, was originally hired by Bill Shockley at his ill-fated semiconductor company. But the Silicon Valley process that Kleiner helped develop was a different innovation model from Bell Labs. It was not a factory of ideas; it was a geography of ideas.

> A technically competent management all the way to the top. Researchers didn’t have to raise funds. Research on a topic or system could be and was supported for years. Research could be terminated without damning the researcher.

> the size of the staff at Bell Labs, and its interdisciplinary nature, were large factors in its success, too. So was the steadiness of the Labs’ funding stream, guaranteed by the monthly bill paid by phone subscribers, which effectively allowed the organization to function much like a national laboratory. Bell Labs managers knew they could support projects—the undersea cable, for example, or cellular telephony—that might require decades of work. The funding stream also assured the managers that they could consistently support educational programs to improve the staff’s expertise and capabilities. And as Morry Tanenbaum, the inventor of the silicon transistor, points out, Bell Labs’ sense of mission—to plan the future of communications—also had an incalculable value that endured for sixty years. The mission was broad but also directed

> John Mayo, among other things, offers this: “We learned that the impossible is not impossible. We learned that if you think you can do something you may very well be able to do one thousand times better once you understand what’s going on.”

> Janelia Farm, the campus serves as an elite research center for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Janelia opened in 2006 with the intent of attacking the most basic biomedical research problems; it is patterned after Bell Labs and backed by a multibillion-dollar endowment. ( )
  breic | May 24, 2021 |
Bell Labs was probably the most important scientific institution of the 20th century. Check out this list: transistors, semiconductors, microwave towers, digital transmission, satellites, radio astronomy, information theory, quality control, fiber optics, undersea cabling, CCDs, cell phones, video phones, pulse code modulation, lasers, Unix, and the C programming language. Every single one of those inventions, discoveries, technologies, or scientific fields was either birthed or midwived at Bell Labs, which at the height of its reputation counted 1,200 PhD holders among 15,000 employees. Seven Nobel Prize-winners worked and researched there, more than at most universities. It was a research laboratory without peer, freed from the short-term pressures of quarterly bottom lines. Instead of research being limited to direct applicability to existing products, Bell Labs scientists created new products, entire industries, and much of the modern world. Nowadays, Bell Labs exists as a shell of its former self, having been repeatedly merged and spun off like drops of quicksilver. Having worked for both Alcatel-Lucent and AT&T, I was interested to read the story of Bell Labs, both for my own curiosity and because its path from greatness to irrelevance says a lot about America.

There are three main layers of story told in this book, and each will appeal to a certain type of reader. The first is about a few of the more famous of the personalities at the Labs, like Shockley or Shannon, and their work; the second is about the history of AT&T as a company; and the third is about the way that the Labs were affected by the changes in the country around it. For the first layer, Gertner wisely focuses on the most prominent of the scientists while still trying to provide a sense of the scale of the Labs and how their work fit into the Labs' mission as a whole. For example, he tells the story of William Shockley, who shared the 1965 Physics Nobel Prize with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for his work on the transistor. Both the early creative parts and the later stagnant, racist parts of Shockley's life story are told in brief but dense pages, and the reader is given a great deal of insight onto how collaborative scientific research actually works, as well as a decent outline of the technical differences between the point-contact transistor that Bardeen and Brattain invented, and Shockley's superior junction transistor. Shockley's attempts to one-up his own teammates to grab more credit for the invention of the transistor are nothing new, of course, and it says a lot about the quality of people at Bell Labs that people like Bardeen were able to not only cope with the kind of erratic behavior that Shockley brought there, but to rebound and win a second Nobel Physics Prize. Picking the right people was a big factor in the Labs' success, and as the parts recounting the idiosyncratic ways that the various recruits chose to use their travel money to hitchhike or wander to the Labs show, sometimes the right people are the ones with complementary quirks. Even the famous building in Murray Hill was designed to encourage interaction between all kinds of people, so that random encounters with colleagues from any department might spark an unusual insight. On a side note, it's interesting how many of the people profiled came from tiny rural towns; the Labs were a great magnet for talent, helping to turn obscure nobodies from tiny towns and universities into powerhouse researchers and raising the games of people who were already brilliant.

This process of rising in the ranks is integral to the second layer of the history. For most of its existence AT&T had a tripod-like structure, with manufacturer Western Electric producing equipment, AT&T Long Lines raising money through its near-total monopoly on lucrative long distance service, and Bell Labs spending money through long-term research. Many of the most important people in this history of the company spent most or all of their professional career at the company, and while this strategy has the well-known side effects of managerial inbreeding and risks of stagnation, the flip side is the potential for remarkable stability, which was essential for the multi-decade planning horizons that the company operated on. Indeed at times the company's solidity resembled a kind of priesthood or alchemist's guild, conducting experiments and conjuring forth wonders without regard for their creations' abilities to make profits or, just as often, to threaten core portions of AT&T's business model. To return to the example of the transistor, Gertner ably relates how research on it (and the related work on semiconductors in general) immediately obsoleted decades worth of expensive work on vacuum tubes. This might have worried some companies (think of Kodak and its ruinous reluctance to embrace digital technology at the expense of its core business), yet AT&T congratulated its team and immediately began to integrate this new invention into its network and system.

Even better, and this is where the third layer of the book comes into play, it provided samples of its creations to companies like Fairchild and Texas Instruments, who promptly made the billions that AT&T did not. I found this to be the most interesting aspect of the Labs' story, because by acting more as a public research laboratory than as part of a private company Bell Labs hurt AT&T as much as it helped them. Partially this unusual arrangement was due to onerous restrictions placed on AT&T by the federal government; forbidden to it were entire extremely lucrative industries, chiefly data processing, communication between computers, and the actual selling of phones and terminals (the company got around this by "leasing" its equipment to customers and vigorously suing people who attempted to attach other devices to its networks). In some ways AT&T was one of the most dominant monopolies ever to exist, to the extent that even famous corporate titans like Standard Oil paled in comparison, yet by locking AT&T out of so many fields the government ended up cultivating a curious sort of public spirit and creative independence at Bell Labs that seems very foreign to companies today.

What's the best way to fund innovation? Public grants to universities? Private sponsorship? Prizes? To some extent each has its merits, and it's possible to argue that even if AT&T hadn't sponsored all that research itself that several smaller companies might have done the work instead. After all, enough physicists headed back into the private sector at the end of WW2 that it would have been unusual for technology to stagnate without the helping hand of Ma Bell. Yet something about the concentration of all that talent makes even the titanic efforts of companies like Xerox, Microsoft, or Google seem slight. Maybe there just isn't a replacement for throwing billions of dollars at hundreds of PhDs, and if the government isn't willing to do it in these times of austerity and recession, who will? Even Bell Labs felt the impact of the Great Depression to some extent, and it was protected by one of the mightiest companies on Earth with a legal monopoly on communication; who could have taken its place then, and who would take its place now? Gertner suggests that the only modern analog of an organization like Bell Labs would be the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and that only a serious project to to tackle the problems of clean energy would be close to the kinds of challenges the Labs faced, yet good luck proposing to fund those projects commensurately; you would have better luck proposing sending people to Mars.

It's a curious fact that even as society has gotten richer in recent years, it's felt like innovation has slowed in all but a few gadget-focused areas. Perhaps this is just an illusion thrown up by our ever-increasing expectations of what The Future owes to us, but I do genuinely think that the pace of improvements in some fields has slowed or plateaued. Has progress simply gotten harder, or do those pictures of the abandoned Bell Labs Holmdel facility, and news articles about Alcatel-Lucent's defunding of basic research spending mean that in some way America has made deliberate choices to retreat inwards, and to dream smaller dreams than generations past? In the words of John Pierce, leader of the Bell Labs team that developed the communications satellite Telstar, "It is clear that we build for the day and not for the ages, and what we build has a community and functional rather than an individual character." There's simply no replacement for the talented individuals, the generous environment they need to work in, and the confident exploratory spirit towards science that characterized Bell Labs at its best. The world is a worse place for its passing. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Excellent - helped break a long standing bit of lore I had learned from my father. I had always learned that Bell Labs greatly supported tons of pure research. Investigation for its own sake and that we have the laser and transistor to thank for it. But BOTH of those inventions were in fact the result of very targeted research agendas. While definitely true that no one was planning on building "the transistor", a huge effort was put into solid state physics because the vacuum tube was so unwieldly.

This book is a great history of the people and process of Bell Labs and amazingly readable. ( )
  bederson | Dec 17, 2020 |
During my PhD and then during again my postdoc, many of the professors / scientists / etc. whom I worked with had spent most of their careers at Bell Labs before moving over to academia or a national lab setting once the heyday was over. I got the impression that academia and government labs were not quite as good a substitute for what Bell Labs used to be.

I thoroughly believe that the type of basic research that occured in a place like Bell Labs in the mid 20th century is necessary for a technological society to advance. Right now, the United States does not have a valid replacement. That means that our technology will necessarily stagnate. As the book points out, our technology keeps up with incremental improvements to consumer devices, but does not lead to the type of life-changing discoveries at the pace that it once did. Capitalism, which focuses on short-term profits at the expense of literally everything else, is not a model that leads to technological improvement. And the United States government is too vastly underfunded to pay for all of the basic science research that should be taking place.

At any rate, this book is an interesting look into the bygone era of Bell Labs in the mid-late 20th century. At times I found it a bit long-winded, and sometimes I felt the narrative lack cohesion, but I'm glad I read it. Bell Labs needs to be remembered for what this country is capable of. ( )
1 vote lemontwist | Dec 9, 2020 |
This book is highly recommended for a technology geek, history geek, history of technology geek, anyone interested in technological innovation, or just plain Ma Bell fans.

Mr. Gertner has amassed an excellent, in-depth (depth as in really deep), coverage of the phenomena that was Bell Labs. He's captured the development, processes, inventions, personalities - the egos, the drives, the vanities and intellects, the senses of humor (Jim Fisk "was fond of putting his colleagues on mailing lists of doctors peddling dubious tonics." !!) He writes with a literary description ("- men in crisp white shirts, sleeves rolled above their elbows, bent over rows and rows of drafting tables.") And, something I find quite refreshing, given this has to have elements of creative non-fiction (facts are dull...narrative gives them life):One afternoon, Mervin Kelly invited [Walter] Brattain over to his home in Short Hills to discuss the matter [Brattain's displeasure with William Schockley]. They likely met in Kelly's study, where he saw all his visitors - [...] My emphasis added, that is the way to write about unknown information!

So much information here, and insights into what Bell Labs was and created. Not all inventions, the processes that worked their way to the world:[Jack A.] Morton would eventually think more deeply about the innovative process than any Bell Labs scientist, with the possible exception of Kelly, In his view, innovation was not a simple action but a "total process" of interrelated parts. "It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of a new market, " he later wrote. "Rather, the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal."Holistic innovation. What a novel concept.

Gertner writes of the demise, that Bell Labs "ceased being essential to America's technology and culture." Sad that, for an institution that created the transistor - arguably the most significant invention ever, the integrated circuit, solar cells, lasers, and a host of other common place today innovations, an institution that reinvented itself many times, finally succumbed.

Excellent history. ( )
  Razinha | Nov 21, 2019 |
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This work highlights achievements of Bell Labs as a leading innovator, exploring the role of its highly educated employees in developing new technologies while considering the qualities of companies where innovation and development are most successful. The author shows how Bell Labs served as an incubator for scientific innovation from the 1920s through the 1980s. In its heyday, Bell Labs boasted nearly 15,000 employees, 1,200 of whom held PhDs and 13 of whom won Nobel Prizes. And at its heart this is a story about a small group of brilliant and eccentric men including Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Thriving in a work environment that embraced new ideas, Bell Labs scientists introduced concepts that still propel many of today's most exciting technologies. In this first full portrait of the legendary Bell Labs, journalist Jon Gertner takes readers behind one of the greatest collaborations between business and science in history. Officially the research and development wing of AT & T, Bell Labs made seminal breakthroughs from the 1920s to the 1980s in everything from lasers to cellular telephony, becoming arguably the best laboratory for new ideas in the world. Gertner's riveting narrative traces the intersections between science, business, and society that allowed a cadre of eccentric geniuses to lay the foundations of the information age, offering lessons in management and innovation that are as vital today as they were a generation ago. -- Publisher description.

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