This week I finished the most recent book in my self-guided study of 20th century technology, namely The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner. As the title implies, it’s a chronicle of research and development wing of AT&T, a history that lasts roughly from the 1920s to its demise in the 1980s.

First of all, the sheer list of things that were invented or discovered in these Labs is just insane by any measure. Physical things like the transistor,transistor, the first satellites, and cellular technology, as well as less tangible inventions and ideas like information theory, advances in quality control, the Unix operating system and the C programming language.

A replica of a transistor

In all eight Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories (Wikipedia).

Wicked Problems

Gertner introduces his book by attempting to establish its value. First point: we have big problems today: “information overloads, infectious disease, and climate change, among others,” problems that some call “wicked problems.” Gertner is offering a history of how one very successful institution solved a serious of large-scale technical problems.

While our engineering prowess has advanced a great deal over the past sixty years, the principles of innovation largely have not. Indeed, the techniques forged at Bell Labs– that knack for apprehending a vexing problem, gathering ideas that might lead to a solution, and the pushing toward the development of a product that could be deployed on a massive scale– are still worth considering today…

The Process

So what were these techniques, what was the process? For Mervin Kelly, a long-time and influential director of the Labs, “inventing the future wasn’t just a matter of inventing things for the future; it also entailed inventing ways to invent those things.”

The process was important at the Labs, especially to directors and upper-management. For Kelly in particular his field of expertise became the management of these sometimes-quirky scientists. He designed the Labs to literally require researchers in one field to walk past the offices of researchers in totally different fields, thus almost guaranteeing a sort-of cross pollination of ideas.

There was also a sort of egalitarian open-door office policy described by Gertner: “Some young employees would quake when they were told to go ask Shannon or Shockley a question. Still, Labs policy stated that they could not be turned away.”

But if forced to list out some principles, we can refer to a list that one of the important researchers at the Labs, John Pierce, wrote out:

  1. A technically competent management all the way to the top
  2. Researchers didn’t have to raise funds
  3. Research of a topic or system could be and was supported for years
  4. Research could be terminated without damning the researcher

We could expand on #2 and especially on #3 and say that, thanks to its government-sanctioned monopoly and ties with the U.S. war efforts and national security apparatus, AT&T could afford to run a well-funded research and development department with few enough strings to enable at least some of the scientists there to carry out what the Labs and director Kelly called “basic research,” “that is, research that generally had no immediate application to a product or company effort but… sought fundamental knowledge regarding the deeper nature of things, such as the behavior of electrons.” (Which reminded me of what Steven called “blue sky” research in Hackers.) The Organizational Man, a supposedly-influential book on the topic that came out in 1956, praises Bell Labs for its belief in “idle curiosity.”

But there were of course numerous other things that made the Labs what it was, Gertner argues, like the culture of working with open doors, recording everything in formal notebooks, right down to the layout of the New Jersey offices.

All that said, Gertner’s emphasis on the importance of leadership in these creative settings definitely reminded me of the similar emphasis in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, a history of ARPANET.

The People

Also similar to Wizards was Gertner’s inclusion of details about the influential individuals in the history of the Labs.

Early on in both the book and the organization’s story, Gertner describes the young recruits, mostly from small towns in the midwest, as having “a certain fearlessness about life,” which he illustrates with a story about what one young man who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in physics, Charles Townes, did with the $100 that the Labs gave him to get from California to Manhattan by rail, which involves riding 3rd-class on trains through Mexico next to a man playing a Nazi accordion and renting a hut on the beach in a yet-to-be-discovered Acapulco for fifty cents a night.

There are not many other stories of this fearlessness, but given the scale and apparent impossibilities of these “wicked problems” we have to believe that these men (and yes, all the scientists and researchers in the book are men) had both a certain fearlessness and a zest for life. At one point Gertner writes that two upper managers literally ran up and down staircases. They “needed to get where [they] were going as fast as possible.”

However there are also a good share of quirky researchers with seemingly no interest in leadership or power over others, who were often characterized by their ever-changing interests. Consider this story about John Pierce that makes me laugh every time I read it:

It was quite common for Pierce to suddenly enter or leave a conversation or a meal halfway through. Sometimes it was involuntarily– something in his makeup, “in the way his mind would click on and off,” as his colleague Bob Lucky… describes it. Other times it was by design. Lucky recalls that during a phone call Pierce might suddenly hang up in the middle of his own sentence, leaving the person on the other end with the impression that a technical glitch had ended the call. No one could imagine that he would hang up on himself.

Gertner describes Pierce as an “instigator”– someone who poses questions or does other things that get others to investigate interesting problems from a new or helpful perspective. Another such researcher was Harry Nyquist, whose story I like too:

…some lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: 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.

But arguably the hero of the book, or at least the hero of these quirky researchers, is a man named Claude Shannon. Shannon’s adviser at MIT, a dean named Vannevar Bush, describes him: “He is shy, personally likable, and a man who should be handled with great care.” Gertner concludes: “There was, in other words, a quiet accord among the professors at MIT: People like Shannon come along so rarely that they must be protected.”

And boy did Shannon prove himself worthy of such attention. In 1948 Shannon published a paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in the Bell System Technical Journal, which basically invented and proved a concept called information theory.

I’m not really in a position to summarize information at this point, but as Wikipedia says, it seems to be a science of quantifying information by calculating the information’s entropy.

I was fascinated enough by it to dive into another book called Information Theory: A Tutorial Introduction, which is dense and mathematical, but I’m liking it a lot. Maybe worthy of a subsequent blog post when I finish it.

Look for Good Problems, Not Good Ideas

OK, so what’s at least one lesson we can take from the history of Bell Labs on an individual level? If I had to pick one it’d be to focus on problems and unknowns rather than ideas, solutions, or knowns.

Gertner writes:

[T]he industrial lab was a challenge to the common assumption that its scientists were being paid to look high and low for good ideas. Men like Kelly and Davisson would soon repeat the notion that there were plenty of good ideas out there, almost two many. Mainly, they were looking for good problems.

And later, about Kelly’s approach:

Whether it was a radar technology for the military or solid-state research for the phone company, Kelly did not want to begin a project by focusing on what was known. He would want to begin by focusing on what was not known.