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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

Jon Gertner · 18 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
The definitive history of America’s greatest incubator of innovation and the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs-officially, the research and development wing of AT&T-was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century's most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men-Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker-who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.
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  • Ranked #22 this year (2022) · view

Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
In the Idea Factory the AT&T execs all have video calling to their homes. There's a lot of great stuff in there as well about how Bell labs helped build the first mobile phone networks.
If you have not, you should read The Idea Factory.

We owe most of our "modern world" to the hard science done at Bell Labs in the 1900s, before the corporation was singularly focused on quarterly profits.

Jan 22, 2021 · fermienrico on Loon’s final flight
I am currently reading "The Idea Factory" [1], the story of Bell Labs and its innovation streak for many decades. There were so many amazing things Bell Labs worked on - all directly related to solving business problems. At one point, they were given a task of developing the most perfect lubrication oil dispenser with a requirement that it dispenses exactly 15 drops of oil per squeeze of the trigger. They worked on Tractors that dug channels for laying telephone lines to materials that lead to the invention of the transistor to solve the problem of unreliability of vacuum tube based switch boards. Some worked on improving manufacturing and invented what we call Quality Control. Everything was deep and wide, but still tied to the Bell's business.

When I look at Google X and bunch of modern corporate labs (Lab 126, Facebook probably has something, Intel Labs (drones!), Microsoft Labs), I see a whole lotta hoo haa about tech innovation, but nothing with a long term vision of integration, capitalization and sustenance. No sense of practicality and pragmatism. May be Loon is a way to make Google an internet company (ISP), I could be wrong but as an outsider, it feels like a PR stunt than anything else.

Highly recommend this book.


Facebook Reality Labs does VR and AR, eg the Oculus Quest. They innovate and develop great mass-market consumer hardware but they've started doing an awful job in every other respect (their family sharing model sucks compared to Steam). I'm looking forward to see them being disrupted by a real competitor soon.
It seems that something like Loon is much more risky and large scale than those Bell Labs projects - which seem like regular r&d risks (although many of them).

And if it have worked reliably and affordably, they probably could have found some way to monetize it.

Lab 126 made Kindle. It's already done its job.

Oh, and Fire TV, and Echo.

Yeah, Lab 126 definitely did its job. Literally every product integrates is a core part of the Amazon experience.

Google already is an ISP... see Fi, Fiber. Loon isn’t so far outside their domain.
The difference is that Bell scientists were always focused on core business problems and not just chasing fantasies. OK sure, Shannon was doing whatever with mice and unicycles...but he earned it! All of Bells big accomplishments were tightly coupled to business needs: Information theory => everything, transistors => bad vacuums, fiber optics => latency.

Similarly Google has had huge contributions on "research" focused on their core problems: MapReduce, BigTable, Borg, BERT, etc.

I think another very important component was that they were innovating in an area where they had a legal monopoly - there was no risk that their competitors would steal away their inventions. This is not the case with Waymo for instance.
The Idea Factory by Gertner was great, and in fact Kernighan's memoir specifically recommended it for more detail on Bell Labs!

Search for the many HN comments about this 2013 book:

I can give you the names of a handful of books that might be useful. Some are more technical, some less so. Some are more about personalities, some about the business aspects of things, some more about the actual technology. I don't really have time to try and categorize them all, so here's a big dump of the ones I have and/or am familiar with that seem at least somewhat related.

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering -

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution -

The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage -

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet -

Open: How Compaq Ended IBM's PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing -

Decline and Fall of the American Programmer -

Rise and Resurrection of the American Programmer -

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date -

Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle -

Winners, Losers & Microsoft -

Microsoft Secrets -

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture -

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age -

Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire -

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture -

The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and The Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer -

Bitwise: A Life in Code -

Gates -

We Are The Nerds -

A People's History of Computing In The United States -

Fire In The Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer -

How The Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone -

Steve Jobs -

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation -

Coders -

Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software -

The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency -

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World -

The Technical and Social History of Software Engineering -


"The Mother of All Demos" by Doug Englebart -

"Jobs vs Gates" -

"Welcome to Macintosh" -

"Pirates of Silicon Valley" -

"Jobs" -

And while not a documentary, or meant to be totally historically accurate, the TV show "Halt and Catch Fire" captures a lot of the feel of the early days of the PC era, through to the advent of the Internet era.

And there's a ton of Macintosh history stuff captured at:

There are several appropriate times in history when the necessary details were aligned for rapid (<200 year) progress from basic manual labor industry to advanced manufacturing. I assume that a mechanical pre-computer like Babbage's difference engine, rather than a fully reprogrammable electrical system, is acceptable.

Certainly within the history of China, India, and various African, Greek, and Middle Eastern cultures, complex mechanical devices with sequencers and even primitive logic gates were being implemented. See, for example as well as,_gas_cyli... as examples where societies combined the necessary wealth, stability, education, social and religious culture to build very impressive mechanical devices.

I'm going to assume also that you have The Knowledge ( all the way up to basic electronics.

At that point you would have everything required to gather people and money and time to build a relay- or vacuum-tube based computer. I recommend reading the early sections of The Idea Factory describing what the early Bell Labs was like. Many modern innovations came from itinerant scientists who interned at Bell Labs, learned to make vacuum tubes by hand (IE, blowing air precisely into molten glass, and sealing the various electronics in place) and then left to found companies that utilized tubes (for example, Beckman went through this process and used the acquired knowledge to build a vacuum-tube based amplifier which was critical to the modern pH meter).

Now, a few challenges. Since you're just dropping back into a society that hasn't undergone an industrial revolution, you don't have a bunch of useful cross-supporting things like a healthy industry that makes high quality alloy steel for you, or optics companies which design and sell sophisticated lens assemblies for high quality telescopes to debug your work, or electronics companies pumping out millions of standard resistors with tight variances, etc. Without those, many steps that would be trivial would instead take extended time. Also, the absence of a statistical quality culture (see Deming) and the fact that most components will be built by hand by artisans means that your computer will not be very reliable (producing incorrect results, or breaking often).

On top of that, you'll probably face skepticism because your early computers won't be able to do anything useful compared to skilled humans. You would probably do best by finding a local military leader and convincing them you could help with ballistics calculations...

A few months ago I ordered a book on a whim called "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." [0]

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned. There were amazing minds at Bell Labs who were given free reign to innovate (as a direct result of AT&T's huge monopoly and revenue stream) and ended up laying the groundwork for many ideas and concepts we take for granted today.

The book is so dense with information and anecdotes but I'd still consider it a page-turner. I highly recommend it.


For those interested in learning more about Bell Labs, I highly recommend "The Idea Factory". It's a history of Bell Labs, focusing both on the biographies of the engineers and also a meta story about how you create an organization that consistently produces impactful innovation.

i assume you're on mobile and that's why you commented before even opening the article. it's a review of that book!
Correct. Apologies!
The article points out that The Idea Factory misses out on some key fundamental innovations from Bell Labs
In sacrificing comprehensiveness, it benefits from focusing in on a more cohesive narrative that allows the reader to take away more.
I was working as my department's internal R&D director a couple years ago and I was interested in the first question as well. Note that that position probably sounds way more important than it actually was. Coincidentally, it was at one of the places Alan Kay mentions in an answer to the linked Quora question.

I pretty much focused on 3 different entities: DARPA, Xerox PARC, and Bell Labs. These are the books I read to try to answer that question:

[1] Dealers of Lightning. [2] The Department of Mad Scientists. [3] The Idea Factory.

I personally thought that having access to a diverse set of disciplines & skills and a reasonable budget were two of the more important things.

The book "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation"[1] is a must read for those interested in Shannon and the history of Bell Labs.


I've read that the Bell Labs offices were designed in order to promote collaboration. It was laid out such that there'd be long hallways between the offices and things like restrooms and stairs, so that there'd be greater chances of colleagues bumping into each other and talking about work.

I don't have a copy of The Idea Factory[1], where I recall reading this handy, but that's my best recollection.


It was the old RAND Santa Monica headquarters, designed by John Williams:

That particular building was demolished in 2005.

And now we put everyone in open-floorplan barns to "promote colllaboration", with nowhere for people to go back and work at when they are done collaborating.

"Hallway conversations" have become "constant conversations"

One of the first things I ask potential employers in my current job search is whether they employ open space office or not, and simply refuse to talk further if they want me to sit with 20+ people in one room. I hope more developers will do it to put some pressure on this matter.
I'd love to have the leverage to do that, but I don't. The vast majority of companies see nothing wrong with this, and I'm not so in demand that I can filter based on office space.
I have two theories of why open-plan offices are popular.

The first is simply that it's cheaper to have an open office. Modern office buildings tend to have large spaces -- nearly whole floors -- that are open, but can be subdivided. But subdivision costs money. Paying carpenters to put up walls isn't cheap, and even cube systems can be surprisingly expensive. Plus managers are accountable for costs. So they choose the cheap option.

The second is that open office plans are good for communication and collaboration, though less good for individual silent work. Managers are essentially all about communication and collaboration, which is why they love these open offices. Unfortunately while programmers need to both communicate and work alone, they need to communicate and collaborate much less than managers do, which is why office plans that are selected by managers make things difficult for the programmers.

My cynical side says a third reason is that open offices make it very easy for managers/bosses/anyone who wants to see if you're working or not.
The Master Switch by Tim Wu [0] goes into great detail about how AT&T invented this racket 120+ years ago and has been perfecting their fleecing tactics since. I particularly enjoy the opening of the book at a 1916 top hat banquet celebrating just how filthy rich their monopoly has become under Theodore Vail.

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner [1] however asserts that the AT&T monopoly allowed Bell Labs to essentially invent the entire information age, but that without the official monopoly, we no longer see the huge investments in basic research, and commensurate major break throughs.

Damn if you do. Damned if you don't.



I read the same thing in this book! I'm from Holmdel NJ, the old location of bell labs. Really cool how they used to invent so much.
Bell Labs was spun off from AT&T into Lucent 20 years ago. A shell of its former self is now owned by Nokia, by way of a variety of mergers and acquisitions.
Is the lab in NJ still active? I heard it was abandoned or at least void of life there.
I've gone through quite a few computing-related 'history' books recently (incl. ) but by far the stand out winner was

- 'The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of Innovation' -

It deals with the creation of Bell Labs and continues through to modern day, giving a deep history of it. A lot of familiar names(Shockley, Shannon et al.) all pop up.

Another good book not yet mentioned would be: 'The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution ' -

I suggest reading "The Idea Factory - The great age of American Revolution". The book talks about the experiences of all these exceptional engineers and scientists that were brought together under the umbrella of Bell Labs and as a result a plethora of technologies came out of it (digital computers, networks etc etc). What we need today is another similar revolution but in the field of bioengineering and health sciences.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

My point it is there can never be a Bell Labs again. Very few organizations have the resources to fund basic sciences and have all the talent they had under one roof.

Some argue that you can again, but I just don't see how it is possible. See, e.g.,

In reading The Idea Factory[1] it became incredibly clear that Bell Labs only released and licensed a great deal of this technology as the results of various antitrust settlements that plagued the company throughout its entire existence. Also, part of the role of the labs appears to have been to give the company something to "show off" whenever congress or the DOJ complained about the extraction of monopoly rents. I highly recommend the book, it was really fascinating to see the degree to which many of our assumptions about the functioning of the labs and its relationship with the corporation are in fact historically inaccurate.


Another theme of The Idea Factory is relevant to this discussion. The Bell System was the hardest thing people tried to build in the 20th century, and it couldn't have been done without valve amplifiers, transistors, information theory, satellites, and masers. Perhaps Google's technical staff won't become that good unless Google sets out to cure cancer, end war, or something equally ambitious. And they don't have to do it out of altruism: if Americans had to pay a trillion dollars a year for a war avoidance system, they'd be silly not to.
I think that is the point of the article. Bell Labs had to release their research, Google does not have to. Well maybe the author of the article should replace "state sanctioned" by "state tolerated" in his description of Bell's monopoly but the key point remains - the difference between Google and Bell Labs is (was) the government involvement.
Thanks for the book recommendation, I swear I get the best nonfiction books from HN.
Indeed "The Idea Factory" is a very good book recommendation. In the conclusion of the book the author argues that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute[1] may be the closest existing research organization to Bell Labs. While much smaller in size than Bell Labs it shares a focus on basic research and is well funded for the long haul.


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