Computer History Museum Event Summary: "The Idea Factory" - Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation-Jon Gertner


On March 28, 2012, author Jon Gertner was interviewed at the Computer History Museum (CHM) by KQED's Dave Iverson about his new book, "The Idea Factory...," which chronicles the history of AT&T Bell Labs. Mr. Gertner told this author he had spent three solid years researching and gathering information for the book.

During the interview, Gertner highlighted the Labs unparalleled role as an incubator of innovation and the birthplace of some of the 20th century's most influential technologies.

Seven Nobel prizes were awarded for work accomplished there - including the transistor, discovery of background cosmic radiation left over from the big bang, developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, and Charge Coupled Device (CCD) semiconductor imaging sensors.

The event was part of the CHM's Revolutionary Series, featuring conversations with some of the most distinguished minds in the computing field. This article is a summary of that event, including selected questions from the audience.

Abstract (provided by the CHM):

"Bell Laboratories, which thrived from the 1920s to the 1980s, was the most innovative and productive institution of the twentieth century. Long before America's brightest scientific minds began migrating west to Silicon Valley, they flocked to this sylvan campus in the New Jersey suburbs built and funded by AT&T. At its peak, Bell Labs employed nearly fifteen thousand people, twelve hundred of whom had PhDs. Thirteen would go on to win Nobel prizes. It was a citadel of science and scholarship as well as a hotbed of creative thinking. It was, in effect, a factory of ideas whose workings have remained largely hidden until now.

New York Times Magazine writer Jon Gertner unveils the unique magic of Bell Labs through the eyes and actions of its scientists. These ingenious, often eccentric men would become revolutionaries, and sometimes legends, whether for inventing radio astronomy in their spare time (and on the company's dime), riding unicycles through the corridors, or pioneering the principles that propel today's technology. In these pages, we learn how radar came to be, and lasers, transistors, satellites, mobile phones, and much more.

Even more important, Gertner reveals the forces that set off this explosion of creativity. Bell Labs combined the best aspects of the academic and corporate worlds, hiring the brightest and usually the youngest minds, creating a culture and even an architecture that forced employees in different fields to work together, in virtually complete intellectual freedom, with little pressure to create moneymaking innovations. In Gertner's portrait, we come to understand why both researchers and business leaders look to Bell Labs as a model and long to incorporate its magic into their own work."

Interview and Discussion:

Here are the key points made by Jon Gertner during the interview with Dave Iverson:

1. Bell Labs was an "intellectual utopia" within the U.S. It was a "problem solving rich environment" where the level of detail and amount of (research) work was endless. At its peak, there were 15,000 employees of which 1,200 had PhD's. With its research directed at problems and projects its parent company (AT&T) could use, Lab employees had freedom, time, money, and a collaborative work environment without competition.

2. AT&T was converted in 1921 to a government-mandated "natural monopoly," exempted by Congress from antitrust laws. That led to it owning its own manufacturing entity- Western Electric which was AT&T's sole provider of equipment. Western Electric therefore became one of America's largest manufacturing companies. In 1925, Bell Telephone Laboratories became the exclusive home of research and development for AT&T's other branches - its R & D wing, so to speak.

3. While Bell Labs became AT&T's R & D center in 1925, its heyday was during the World War II years and immediately thereafter.

  • Bell Labs great post WW II inventions included:
  • The Transistor (patent by Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain)
  • Silicon Solar Cell (1954)
  • Information Theory (by Claude Shannon)
  • First transcontinental telephone link (1914-15)
  • Digital Communications (transmission & switching)
  • Communications Satellites
  • Unix real time operating system
  • Charge Coupled Devices
  • Laser Theory
  • Semiconductor processing
  • Cellular technology

Editor's Note on the Invention of the Transistor:

First, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain demonstrated the "point-contact" transistor on Dec. 23, 1947. These two scientists worked in the research group that Shockley led, but they built their transistor with little help from him. Then Shockley broke with Bell Labs' collaboration norms by separately inventing a second, more reliable, "junction" transistor while he was holed up for several days in a hotel room. Bell Labs would have preferred that Shockley perform his transistor research in his office. Finally, in 1954, Morris Tanenbaum invented the third, "silicon" transistor (the previous designs were germanium). The vast majority of today's transistors are connected in circuits on silicon wafers.

Bardeen and Brattain would share the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics, but not Shockley. Estranged and disgruntled, Shockley left Bell Labs in 1955 to form an eponymous start-up in Mt View, CA. It was Shockley Labs that layed the foundation for what would become Silicon Valley. The genesis of Shockley Labs and its offspring Fairchild Semiconductor was the subject of a 2006 CHM event summary written by this author

4. Equipment built by Western Electric was to last for at least 30 years (contrast that with today's cell phones, media tablets and notebook PCs with life times of 18 months or less). And it was the Bell Labs completed research projects that became the foundation of many different types of telephone company equipment.

Through Western Electric/AT&T, Bell Labs had a connection to the market and thereby to real problems. The fact that it wasn't a tight coupling is what enabled people to work on many long-term problems. In sharp contrast with today's start ups, Bell Labs was big and slow, rather than quick and nimble. Mr. Gertner hinted that perhaps large R & D projects would be better done by big and slow teams, but he didn't say how that might happen or funded.

One key accomplishment of the Labs was the replacement of vacuum tubes with electronic circuits in telephone switches. Of course, the transistor was the key invention that facilitated that replacement. Bell Labs knew the significance of the transistor and AT&T/Western Electric capitalized on that huge breakthrough by designing them into all types of telephone equipment.

5. Bell Labs had a lot of misses:

-The Picture Phone was an "incredibly expensive folly," according to Mr. Gertner. In the early 1960s, Bell Labs poured a lot of research dollars and its reputation into an early form of videoconferencing - the PicturePhone- which was a huge commercial failure.

-Another miss was not perfecting Fiber Optics into commercial products. That honor went to Corning, not Bell Labs.

-An audience member cited development of integrated circuits and the Internet (connectionless packet switching) as other misses.

6. Bell Labs was an entity in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This may be lacking in today's diminished research organizations, according to Mr. Gertner. The structure of the Labs and it's tie in to Western Electric/AT&T allowed for a "long unfolding of technology development," Mr. Gerner said.

The U.S. government currently funds > $150 B/ year in "long term" research, with most of that going to national labs and universities.

Venture Capitalists have a much shorter time horizon, funding quick payoff "research" projects at its portfolio companies.

7. With the demise of Bell Labs/Western Electric combo and the strong trend to global outsourcing/ off shoring, the U.S. now lags many countries in manufacturing prowess. Without captive research labs and manufacturing, you lose the connection between creativity and product development. The lack of state of the art manufacturing technology in the U.S. could cause it to lose other aspects of innovation and be a long term negative for our economy, Mr. Gertner said.

Editor's Note: MIT President Susan Hockfield had even a stronger opinion on high tech manufacturing being critical to the U.S. innovation economy.

8. Bell Labs had a long run of shining glory, that occurred in the unusual environment of a regulated monopoly business. Perhaps even more important, it happened when telecom technology was still separate from the barely emerging computing technology.

Q and A Session:

Mr Gertner did not give many definitive answers during the Question and Answer session.

Here are few of the inspiring and thoughtful questions asked by Mr. Iverson, with the answers provided by Gertner:

1. How to capture the essence of basic research in a public company that is NOT a regulated monopoly? In particular, how to balance short term profits vs long term vision?

Answer: It's out of balance now. Investing in basic research can pay off in ways we can't imagine today.


2. How many Nobel Prizes do you think Google or Facebook researchers will win?

Answer: Gertner avoided any predictions and simply said they would at least be remembered as "great communications platforms."


3. How would you compare Bell Labs to IBM Research or other research labs active during its heyday?

Answer: Gertner again avoided a direct comparison and simply said that he thought Bell Labs’ work would remain unmatched, but that it also benefited from being attached to the AT&T monopoly, which no lab can claim today.


4. In a changing world economy, where should basic research be focused

Answer: In energy and bio-tech, rather than IT. Attacking the big problems in those fields will be essential for break throughs.


Audio Archive of this event is at


Even in his book, Mr Gertner seems to have more questions than answers about the best way to do basic and industry directed research. Here's a quote related to that theme:

Jon Gertner: "Are big companies (like IBM, Facebook and Google) taking a wise approach (to research)? Or is breakthrough research better left to academics and national laboratories? The flipside of this is to think about whether something valuable has been lost with the demise of big shops like Bell Labs, which is known less for incremental innovations than platform innovations, such as the transistor or laser, that served as the basis for new industries. Without a place like the Labs, is something key to our innovation economy missing—something we may only discover a decade or two from now, when there are few new platforms on which to build the next generation of technology products? We talk an awful lot about the iPad 3 these days, and less about these questions. But maybe we should."


Like many lectures and discussion these days, this one produced more questions than answers, i.e. what's the significance of Bell Labs today and the best way to do both basic and targeted research?

The idea of big, slow, but steady resonates with me a whole lot more than quick and nimble (with cutting corners to accelerate product- to- market time). But one problem with that approach is that product lifetimes are much shorter than they were in the heyday of Bell Labs. So maybe a more balanced approach between these two extremes is the best solution for doing research. But then we are left with one more big question: who will fund it?


The author sincerely thanks John C. Hollar, President and CEO of the CHM, for his diligent review of this article and his helpful suggestions to improve its accuracy. Mr. Hollar has done a spectacular job in leading all aspects of exhibits and programs at the Museum. He is also a very skilled interviewer and a master of opening remarks, which sets the stage for the event which follows.