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December 16, 2012

Review: The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

by brainoids

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” tells an important story about the history of many of the communications and information technology underpinnings of our current era. More importantly, it explores (indirectly and eventually) a major question of what is needed to make large basic and applied research labs successful. I’m glad I read this book, but can’t say I necessarily enjoyed reading it. As such I’m struggling with whether to rate 3 or 4 stars … if Goodreads allowed 3.5, that’d be it.

Growing up very close to Bell Labs’ Holmdel NJ facility, I was attracted to this book because of the place the Labs occupied in our local culture. If you were bright, technically oriented, and wanted a well-paying job, Bell Labs was the place to strive for. The invention/discovery of radio astronomy at Crawford Hill added to the mystique.

The book’s primary drawback (for me) is what feels like a 70/30 split on biography versus technology – I think it would have been a more interesting and engaging narrative had the biographies of a few famous players in the Labs’ long history been treated as embellishment, rather than primary narrative. (I say this regretfully as many of these individuals and their world-changing contributions deserve recognition, but as a book review, it makes for a challenging narrative structure). The reality is the connection between the sometimes (but not always) colorful individual personalities and the ideas and technologies they generated is often too thin; the researchers emerge as characters in a narrative without a strong or clear connection to the plot devices, so to speak. Claude Shannon, whose prescience in 1950’s communications/information theory was truly remarkable, is perhaps an exception.

In short, the secrets to success of the Bell Labs miracle, which generated an amazing number of globally transformational technologies, seem to fall into:

1 – access to the huge reservoirs of working capital that the AT&T monopoly and “cash cows” (local telephone companies) to fund large scale R&D

2 – protection from competition, insofar as it created an environment where fundamental / basic / applied research could be pursued as an end of itself (shielding researchers from having to seek funding), working towards 30-year (not product cycle driven) time horizons, and loosely organized and driven by :

3 – the “grand challenge” of emplacing and continually improving the nation’s telephone network, at its creation, the most complex “machine” (or at least system) ever considered

4 – the co-location of the basic/applied research function with a very large engineering and systems development capability, which could turn fundamental discoveries into applications

The pregnant question – treated only glancingly in the final 2-3 chapters – is whether such a construct is possible again in today’s world. The industrial lab model (at least at this scale) seems to have been supplanted by the venture/entrepreneurial distributed model, but as Gertner points out, this has a defect in that it sacrifices item #2 above, driving innovation to be more incremental and product driven, than transformational. It is unfortunate that this theme was not more deeply developed in the book, as well as a deeper treatment of the evolution of Bell Labs after the AT&T breakup of the 1980s; this is rushed through in single chapter, and yet it is the crux of one of the more thought provoking and relevant lines of thinking. Also only glancingly treated are whether information technology (for which the only giants capable of investing such R&D today – Apple, Facebook, Google, etc) is even the right domain, or whether the next grand challenges will arise in biology or energy.

As a long-time NASA employee, I can’t help but try and draw contrasts between the Bell Labs 4-point model summarized above, and how the Agency currently operates (recognizing that this is peripheral to the book review – but it does illustrate how the book’s concepts have relevance):

1 – At its face, the “capital sufficiency” test is met, with an $18B/year annual budget, NASA is exceedingly fortunate relative to government R&D agency peers. However, the budget is profoundly oversubscribed, and broken down (with significant administration and legislative branch ‘assistance’) into a number of stovepipes which do not intercommunicate or leverage resources well. As a result, basic and applied research are confoundingly “resource starved” at the lowest levels.

2 – Competition is a mixed bag. As a government agency, NASA must embrace competition among researchers as part of its fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers. That said, competition between NASA ‘business units’, as well as the machinery of a grants process, tends to disfavor basic and applied research for its own sake, working to objectives with much longer time horizons than the needs of individual programs and program managers. The “luxury factor” AT&T was able to provide as a corporate culture – and management – decision isn’t within the purview of program managers to grant.

3 – While NASA faces many challenges in doing some of the most complex engineering and discovery possible, it (1) lacks the “grand challenge” incentive that drove emplacement of the national phone system, and (2) has for too many decades been hostage to warring philosophies – and politics – over purpose. It may be that until a truly globally critical function becomes apparent – energy or rare earth metal supply, planetary protection, space security – a driving purpose as vast, technologically provocative, economically relevant and complex as the phone system creation, may be elusive.

4 – This piece of the Bell Labs equation is present in NASA, co-location (at least at an Agency level) of a basic/applied research base with a vast capability in engineering development. Unfortunately, the capabilities are too stovepiped, with the research capabilities and centers too poorly integrated with the development capabilities and centers (as well as programmatic impedance towards making the transition). Of the four factors, this is the one that would be most readily addressed by changes in management approach (although by no means easy).

Coming back to the book review – I would say The Idea Factory is a “should read” for those interested in the topic of innovation or R&D rather than a “must read”. It is rewarding, but only with the investment of a good bit of energy, patience and passion for the subject.

View all my reviews


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