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

Speaker

Jon Gertner

Jon Gertner is currently an editor-at-large at Fast Company where he writes and edits features on innovation and technology. Previously, he was a writer at The New York Times Magazine where he wrote about science, business, society, and economics. In March 2012, he published a comprehensive book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, which thoroughly detailed the creation and development of Bell Labs. In this book, Gertner describes the people and innovations that made the collaborative network possible. Through his vivid writing, Gertner brings the characters and the Labs themselves to life.

Session

The session would revolve around Jon Gertner’s expertise of Bell Labs and how the company was both an eminent example of literal transduction, through the AT&T company, and–perhaps more importantly–social transduction. Because of the disparate nature of these two topics, it would be best for him to approach them separately. He could begin by describing the history of Bell Labs and the way that the company revolutionized the world with telephone signaling and other innovations. These inventions were crucial in driving society toward better communication solutions. By discussing the history and the by-products of Bell Labs first, we can set the stage for a thorough discussion on how Bell Labs managed to bring some of the brightest minds together and create one of the most productive workforces in human history.

As previously mentioned, the second segment of the talk would consist of Gertner discussing the social transduction that was involved at Bell Labs. Gertner could once again take a historic perspective by first describing how the Labs were engineered to produce ideas. For instance, the hallways were intentionally made to be long and straight so that scientists could not walk through the labs without passing someone they knew; the intent behind this design was to lead people to engage in conversation that could result in interdisciplinary collaboration or or even culminate in a breakthrough. As improbable as this may seem today, such collaboration was a near regular occurrence at Bell Labs. In fact, a former Bell Lab employee, Pierce, was known for his probative questions that often led people to breakthroughs in their research.

Bell Labs Hallways
Next Gertner would discuss how the leadership at Bell Labs was able to manage a scientific staff and to keep them productive. An essential aspect of this dynamic was that all the leadership at Bell Labs and the AT&T company were scientists; they spoke the same language as their employees, which allowed for them to easily interact with one another. Additionally, Bell Labs executives had a policy that  ensured anyone in a higher hierarchical position would always be available for questions or concerns. This undoubtedly led to an open, collaborative environment that fostered productivity.

To wrap up the discussion, Gertner would discuss the ironic and tragic downfall of Bell Labs. The fact that the AT&T parent company gave Bell Labs the leeway to research for solutions ten years down the road ensured their dominance in the industry for a long period of time, but eventually their discoveries revolutionized the industry so much that the company was no longer able to compete on all fronts. Ideally, he would discuss what this means for large, collaborative enterprises across the board, both private and public (whether they be at Universities or think tanks), and how we can learn from Bell Labs to create environments that are equally as productive and collaborative. We can learn from history how to avoid the mistakes of the past; perhaps, Gertner can tell us how to create a new Bell Labs.

Resources

Gertner and His Book

Bell Labs

Transduction Themes

Literal Transduction

Bell Labs was responsible for beginning the information revolution that we find ourselves in today. They are responsible for telephones and developed fiber optic cables that we currently use. In this manner, they are clearly the progenitors of the literal transfer of information across space and time.

Social Transduction

The more complex aspect of Bell Labs is how the products of technological transduction came about. Bell Labs is known to have been an extremely collaborative environment, which stemmed from the ease of social transduction and signaling between individuals. As mentioned in the session summary, this stemmed from numerous sources including the architecture of the building, the personality of the executives, and the people themselves. Every aspect of their workplace pushed them toward transferring ideas across persons and even disciplines since their success depended upon it. We often talk about interdisciplinary research sometimes for the sake of it being “interdisciplinary”, but Bell Labs truly knew what interdisciplinary research was. There were chemists, physicists, and engineers all working together toward a single goal and each of them was able to transmute the idea that would be finally transduced to the entire world. What made Bell Labs great was the environment that fostered the exceptional level of social transduction, which in turn led to the Nobel Prizes and discoveries.

Mapping Connections

Bell Labs Transuction Map (PPT)

Bell Labs Transduction Map

Proposed by Nicholas Lee.