This is a review of the book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. I loved this book. It’s amazing to think about what the people at Bell Labs accomplished in this corporate American lab in the mid-twentieth century. I knew it was important, but I didn’t realize the extent of the innovations and inventions that came out of those labs. We owe much of our modern information technology and connected world to work that was done in those labs.
The science and technology that came out of the labs during that period are mind-boggling; active satellites, cellular networks, information theory, transistors, microwave transmission, and much more. A dozen or more Nobel prizes were awarded to employees of the Labs, which I consider an amazing accomplishment. The impact of transistors alone is almost beyond belief. It’s hard to imagine how much different things would be without them. They were an incredibly complex innovation even though they now permeate every aspect of our lives – in the quintillions. That’s not an exaggeration either. I read somewhere that in a few years the number will exceed 1,000 quintillion which means we will be talking about sextillions of them (1000000000000000000000).
There were some commercial failures as well. Did you know the picture phone was sold by AT&T in the 1960’s and bombed? In a way it’s hard to believe that affordable technology was available that long ago. It wasn’t until the 21st century with the explosion of apps like like Skype and FaceTime that “picture phones” use was actually realized in any real sense.
Bell Labs did major general scientific work and wedded it with incredible technological expertise in a way that was never done before and likely will never be repeated. I almost wanted to cry reading the last couple of chapters that described what has happened to the labs and why something similar is unlikely to happen again.
I love good biographies, histories of specific events, and good story telling. This book by Jon Gertner has it all and to me at least it was very compelling. It’s not about how to have good ideas from an individual perspective. It’s really a biographical history book about a certain place and time where great ideas and practical applications came together and changed the world. Gertner really gets into the lives and the work of a few brilliant individuals who worked at the labs during this period. I found them and their story absolutely fascinating.
The book is fairly long at least by today’s standards so it isn’t a quick read. There is nothing practical or self-help about it either. However, if you like technology, ideas and their history, and/or biographies I think you will like this book. I loved it.
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