Bell Labs as an Object Lesson For Today's Innovators
An interview with Jon Gertner, author of "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation," kicked off today's MPA Digital: Technology conference at the Time-Life building in New York.
Gertner discussed Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T, which he said in the 1950s controlled 80 to 90 percent of the telephone conversation in the United States. In its heyday, Bell Labs tackled a "never-ending stream of problems" to improve telephone communications, as well as create new devices and processes.
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. They also could take time to jell: decades, in some cases, for Bell Labs-hatched ideas like silicon solar cells or lasers to be built out and infiltrate the culture.
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 there were two elements outside of management that helped facilitate innovation at Bell Labs: known experts on staff known colloquially as "the guy who wrote the book," and so-called catalytic figures—"people who could spark ideas but were not necessary great at following through."
An internal study at the time found that researchers with the most patents had breakfast or lunch with an information sciences theorist named Harry Nyquist. Nyquist, Gertner said, drew ideas out of his associates by asking good questions.
Because it was a monopoly, AT&T could think long-term and tolerate a degree of failure, Gertner said, comparing the company to Hollywood studios that can absorb some money-losing projects if they succeed in producing a blockbuster or two. It was also lucky enough to be the right company at the right time. "Information technology and telecommunications was the great challenge of that century," he said. "[The challenge of] linking people has been solved. The question is, what comes next?"