AT&T’s Bell Labs can be credited with inventing the 20th Century, having created the transistor, solar cell, trans-continental and trans-Atlantic telephone cables, and communication satellites, not to mention digital audio and information theory. How they did it is the story of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. Here are some excerpts.

On Vision:


AT&T’s savior was Theodore Vail, who became its president in 1907,… (p. 18)… His publicity department had come up with a slogan that was meant to rally its public image, but Vail himself soon adopted it as the company’s core philosophical principle as well. [16] It was simple enough:


“One policy, one system, universal service.”


That this was a kind of wishful thinking seemed not to matter. (p. 20)


…in any company’s greatest achievements one might, with the clarity of hindsight, locate the beginnings of its own demise. (p. 186). [See also on this blog, Your greatest strength is your #1 blind spot.]



On Management:


Measurement devices that could assess things like loudness, signal strength, and channel capacity didn’t exist, so they, too, had to be created— for it was impossible to study and improve something unless it could be measured. (p. 48).


“You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,” Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, “but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other sixteen and a half hours.” (p. 156).


What was striking but almost always overlooked about its invention, Fuller later recalled, was that all three inventors of the device were working in different buildings. “The solar cell just sort of happened,” he said. It was not “team research” in the traditional sense, but it was made possible “because the Labs policy did not require us to get the permission of our bosses to cooperate— at the Laboratories one could go directly to the person who could help.” (p. 171).


Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather , as one scientist recalled, “he drew people out, got them thinking.” More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions. 41 (p. 135).


[John Pierce] At Bell Labs he had spent his days doing whatever suited him. The brunt of his management work there had consisted of dropping in, unannounced, on colleagues in their labs to ask how work was progressing. (p. 324).


…the director of chemical research was taking a turn to give a presentation on some recent experiments. “He used an innocent sentence,” Pollak recalls, “something like, ‘and this particular aspect is completely understood.’ And Baker didn’t say anything, he just started asking him questions. He started with one thing, and then he asked a question about his answer, and then he asked questions about his answer to that, and so on— until he just demolished the guy. It was that statement— this particular thing is completely understood. He was trying to show him that it wasn’t understood at all. And he didn’t say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to say things like that.’ He just cut him down, six inches at a time.” To Pollak, this was a demonstration not of Bill Baker’s cruelty but of his acumen— in this case to push his deep belief that science rests on a foundation of inquiry rather than certainty. (p. 239).


[Kompfner] “went around the world at that time, in 1960, trying to find good people— that’s all he wanted, good people,” recalls Herwig Kogelnik. “And then he would try to persuade them to switch their disciplines to take on what he called ‘laser and optical communications research.’ ” (pp. 256-257).



On Creativity


When asked, “Can Bell Labs take credit to some extent for your achievement?” Shannon answered, “I think so. If I had been in another company, more aimed at a particular goal, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to work that way.” (p. 379).


“If ever there were proof of the virtues of free research, General Electric and Bell Labs provide it,” Whyte wrote [in The Organization Man], pointing in particular to the achievements of thinkers like Claude Shannon. “Of all corporations’ research groups these two have been the two outstandingly profitable ones … of all corporation research groups these two have consistently attracted the most brilliant men. Why? The third fact explains the other two. Of all corporation research groups these two are precisely the two that believe in ‘idle curiosity.’” (p. 184).



On Implementation:


[John Pierce] “You see, out of fourteen people in the Bell Laboratories,” he once remarked, “only one is in the Research Department, and that’s because pursuing an idea takes, I presume, fourteen times as much effort as having it.” (p. 348).




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