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Bell Labs as an Object Lesson For Today's Innovators
The recent MPA Digital: Technology conference at the Time-Life building in New York featured an interview with Jon Gertner, author of "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation."
Innovation as an idea had a high bar at Bell Labs, Gertner said, where new products had to succeed in solving problems efficiently and cheaply.
The transistor, the "great invention of the 20th century," came out of the creation of multi-disciplinary teams trading ideas: physicists, metallurgy experts, electrical engineers, etc. "[Bell Labs' research director Mervin Kelly] created a team with a mission … sometimes that echo system of ideas meant things happened serendipitously."
Gertner said a key lesson from the Bell Labs experience is that we do not always understand the implications of a technology created to solve a specific challenge of its time. The transistor, he said, was conceived as a replacement for large, heavy, breakable vacuum tubes—and succeeded brilliantly. Its long term, revolutionary role in computer chips was barely thought of.
"It's not clear they understood how it would be used in computers," he said. "You can't see around corners. You think you can put a new idea into an old paradigm, and you can't." He compared it to today's questions about the right content for tablets and other mobile devices, and the significance of efforts by companies like Google to increase bit rates to as much as 100 times what they are today.
Bell Labs, he said, solved some problems but created new ones—in no small degree, for itself. Its greatest accomplishments, Gertner said, became "the seeds of its undoing" as its patents were used by IBM and other computer companies to fundamentally change the way information is used and delivered. PE