The Idea Factory: How Bell Labs Created The Future

In The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner writes of the legendary innovations developed at AT&T's Bell Labs, from lasers and transistors to solar cells and cell phones, and discusses how the lab became a hotbed for new ideas.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

What sort of company would have a song written about it, let alone have its employees sing it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELL'S BELLS LABORATORY")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We've traveled a long way to bring you this song, a brand new calypso we're sure to get wrong, about the reform school to which we belong. It's the Hell's Bells Laboratory. It's the Hell's bells and buckets of blood at the Hell's Bells Laboratory.

FLATOW: The Hell's Bells Laboratory, the storied Bell Labs nestled into the rolling hills of New Jersey. You may remember it as the place where Ma Bell developed part of its indestructible telephones. But the transistor - maybe the most important innovation of the 20th century - was invented there too. Researchers at Bell Labs were inventing the future in all kinds of ways doing pioneering work on solar cells, lasers and communication satellites. A couple of scientists even discovered the first echoes of the big bang by accident. It's an incredible story.

They - two of them, Penzias and Wilson, would go on to win the Nobel Prize for that. Jon Gertner writes all about the magical days of the Hell's Bells Laboratory in his new book "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." He's also an editor at Fast Company here in New York. And he joins us in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JON GERTNER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Bell Labs has been one of my great interests, ever since I was a little kid. And they, you know, helped me do little science experiments with parts and things. And I can see your love for it also in your book.

GERTNER: Yeah. Actually, I grew up pretty close to that. I was a few hundred yards away from the Murray Hill laboratory...

FLATOW: Right.

GERTNER: ...which was really the great New Jersey institution where the transistor was invented, the solar cell and a lot of that great early work was done.

FLATOW: And it was a real great controversy about who actually invented the transistor at Bell Labs, was there not?

GERTNER: Yeah. I mean, there was a large team, and in that team, which was co-led by William Shockley, who's the main character in my book, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen were the - really the first people who came up with the - what was known as the point-contact transistor in 1947. And then a few months later, Shockley came up with another idea for something called the junction transistor, which actually turned out to be functionally better.

FLATOW: Right.

GERTNER: ...but was not first.

FLATOW: Yeah. He told them to go look for his, but they found theirs, didn't they?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERTNER: He was - there was a kind of understanding at Bell Labs that your supervisor was not supposed to compete with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERTNER: But Shockley, as brilliant as he was in this instance at least, couldn't contain his ego. That's right.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. John Bardeen is considered one of the biggest geniuses of all time. He won two Nobel Prizes, right?

GERTNER: That's right. The second came after he left Bell Labs for superconductivity. And in fact, one reason why he left Bell Labs was they wouldn't really fund his work. There was tensions with Shockley, but also he wanted to pursue his deep curiosity. And I guess, the idea of being is would Bardeen's work be relevant to communications, which was kind of that sort of metric at Bell Labs, you know, does this have some greater use for human communications. And then he went off to the University of Illinois after that.

FLATOW: This is Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Jon Gertner, author of "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." I started off by playing the "Hell's Bells" song. Had you heard that before?

GERTNER: It's been a while but yeah.

FLATOW: It's been a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But it's illustrative of, you know, the kind of sense of company that it had, right? People who work there, they took ownership of it. They sang about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERTNER: They did. You know, and it was a huge place, really. I mean, by the late 1940s, there were about 9,000 people working there. And by the height of its reputation, I guess, in the late '60s, there were about 15,000. And then before the phone company was broken up, there were about 25,000 people, and there weren't really marketing departments. You know, these were technical people for the most part - engineers, scientists, some of the best-in-the-world, technical assistants. And, yes, they felt they were - and perhaps rightly - at this kind of Shangri-La, this place - the greatest laboratory in the world.

FLATOW: What made it such - so great?

GERTNER: There are reasons why I think why it was a great place to work and there are other reasons why it was such a successful lab in terms of innovation. Certainly, if you were in the research department, which was about 10 to 15 percent of the people at Bell Labs, they had a much larger development department, which kind of took those ideas from research and sort of developed them into actual devices for the phone system. But there was a lot of autonomy, for one thing, especially in research. You could follow your curiosity. Being attached to the phone monopoly gave it a fair amount of funding. So I mean, you...

FLATOW: You had a steady flow of money coming in. You had a monopoly on the phone.

GERTNER: Exactly. And we were just talking about NASA before...

FLATOW: Yeah.

GERTNER: ...but here, you could plan far in the future because as far as you could see there was going to be a phone monopoly far into the future as well. So you could really - you can think not just five years ahead, 10 years, 20 years ahead. In fact, some of those early innovations that I've talked about bringing the transistor, for instance, into the phone system or electronic switching or communication satellites. I mean, those took years...

FLATOW: Yeah.

GERTNER: ...and years of planning and (unintelligible).

FLATOW: And a war in between even.

GERTNER: A war in between. Cellular telephones, I mean, the first memo for cellular telephones was written at Bell Labs in 1947. But it really wasn't until the late 1960s that these guys at Bell Labs started meeting and trying to actually plan out a national cellular telephone system.

FLATOW: Is there any place like it now at this point?

GERTNER: I don't think so. In fact, I'm pretty sure there isn't. In the sense that - I think we kind of think of all innovation may be the same now, but what was going on at Bell Labs was not the kind of great consumer innovations that are coming out of, say, Apple or Google or even Facebook. I mean, these were kind of platform innovations. They were innovations on which devices or the infrastructure for communications has really been built. So it's the stuff that's inside the stuff we use every day.

The DNA of our all electronic devices really contains these things, these semiconductor lasers for communications or in DVDs or transistors, which are really building blocks of all digital products. And those kinds of platform innovations relied on basic scientific...

FLATOW: Basic research.

GERTNER: That's right.

FLATOW: That's right.

GERTNER: And the notion the companies today can afford to invest in that, these are pretty risky scientific experiments without a real assurance of payoff has made it increasingly difficult to justify.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can tweet us @scifri. We're talking with Jon Gertner, author of "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." We'll take a break. We'll come back and take your calls, talk about Bell Labs, maybe you work there. Share some experiences with us. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Jon Gertner, author of "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." He's also editor at Fast Company here in New York. There are some great characters who made their way through Bell Labs. Let me pick out one or two. Let's talk about Claude Shannon. Tell us about him.

GERTNER: Claude Shannon legendarily used to like to unicycle up and down the halls of Bell Labs late at night, sometimes while juggling. In the book, I sort of note that in some ways - I mean, talk about somebody who followed their curiosity wherever it would take them in a way where he was sort of untroubled by how people necessarily perceived him. And he was a genius. I mean, in some ways, he was different than a lot of the other people I talk about in the book in that he worked alone.

A lot of the work at Bell Labs was by its nature collaborative. But Shannon - it was an open-door policy at Bell Labs. Shannon was one of the few if not the only person who work with his door closed. But deeply eccentric, a humble man, a nice man, but truly interested in building automated machines, for instance, far, far ahead of his time in his interest in robotics. And, of course, really his fame came from being one of the visionaries of digital communications, understanding that information would be really the currency of the next age, that all information could be thought of the same way. All communications could be thought of as information. And the best way to actually transmit it would be digitally as ones or zeroes.

FLATOW: And he saw that you could use the transistor for that instead of just as an amplifier, which it was designed originally to be, to send phone calls long distances.

GERTNER: That's right. I mean, there's a great question of did Bell Labs know what it had when it had the transistor.

FLATOW: Right.

GERTNER: It invented - it had actually pursued this device out of a search for understanding. They wanted to understand semiconducting materials. And in the back of their minds, some of the people working on this project understood that if they found something, they could replace these bulky vacuum tubes that amplified phone calls as they send them around the country. So the notion of is it just a replacement for the vacuum tubes or is it something much bigger.

And as we know, its real greatest value in some ways is as a device - an active device on semiconducting chips. There are millions and billions of them on the chips that serve as logic for our computers...

FLATOW: Store ones and zeroes in the transistors.

GERTNER: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah.

GERTNER: And certain people at Bell Labs understood this far before others and even - I came across a letter from Shannon writing one of his high school teachers, saying that, you know, we've just unveiled the transistor - and I think really before anyone else had said this - I consider it the most important invention of the last 50 years. It will change the world in ways we don't dream about.

I think one thing that was very clear to me as I kind of went through my many years of research on some of these people was that Shannon could see farther and better than anyone else. It was just uncanny.

FLATOW: Are the archives at Bell Labs well-preserved, or did they get lost when AT&T came in?

GERTNER: They're a bit of a mess. One person valiantly tries to keep the million-plus documents in order. You know that last scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"...

FLATOW: Yes.

GERTNER: ...when they're in the warehouse?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERTNER: It's kind of like that. I'd find myself wandering through these, like, endless rows of lab notebooks. In fact, I was giving a talk on Bell Labs at Google, and I said, you know, you guys - if you want to organize this, that would be great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Years ago, I did a PBS show called "Transistorized!," and we did the history. And we had to recreate some of the scenes because there were no records of them. There was no record - there was no film of the famous announcement of the transistor to the public.

GERTNER: Yeah.

FLATOW: They just threw the stuff out. People we met, people who say, you know, we were sort of crying, and we went through the garbage ourselves, picking pieces out of what was being thrown out.

GERTNER: That's right. And the, you know, there were a few documents, and it's really a kind of treasure hunt - it still is too - trying to kind of gather pieces from different folders, different files. In fact, I wasn't just at the AT&T archives. I would have to go around the country actually to all the scientists in the book. I mean, the book in many ways is a story of five or six men and the innovations they created. But all their papers were in different places in the country.

So for Claude Shannon, for instance, I was down in Washington, and I'd find a crucial letter from Mervin Kelly, another character in the book, and sort of, ah...

FLATOW: Right.

GERTNER: ...piece of the puzzle, OK.

FLATOW: Right. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two. And here's Debra(ph) in Milwaukee. Hi, Debra.

DEBRA: Hi. I'm here in an archive, with an archival piece of equipment maybe in my hands right now. My neighbors might think I'm a little crazy, and that's OK. But it's an old phone, but it's not too old. It's like - I think it's from the 1970s. But it says Bell Systems property, not for sale. It's like a - just an old phone. But my cousin, Jimmy, doc - aka Dr. James Bischoff(ph) now - his first job was at Bells Labs and I stayed with him for a month when I was 20 in Mount Morris, New Jersey, while he worked at Bell Labs. And he went on to invent the gizmo at - when he went to Boston University, when he - their team was selected by NASA for a project. And he invented the gas permeable solar spectrum monitor and now - then he got his doctorate from Berkeley and has launched a couple of rockets. And I think - if he's listening, hi, Jimmy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEBRA: And he's - I think Bell Labs is - and I just never knew what notoriety it held, but it's amazing.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for calling, Debra.

GERTNER: Yeah. I mean, it's a lost world, but at that time, I mean, it really was - when I said the greatest laboratory in the world, and really a place that changed society and culture and really our economy forever because a lot of these innovations created, you know, new industries that have created millions of jobs.

FLATOW: You know, when she says she has an antique phone from 1970, I got five.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERTNER: They were built to last.

FLATOW: They were. You could not - because you didn't own them, right?

GERTNER: That's right. It's not coincidence. I mean, one of the rules was that, you know, if you're building something at Bell Labs for Western Electric who was the manufacturing part of the phone company, and anything was built to stand - it was designed and built to stand service for 30 to 40 years.

FLATOW: Yeah. And they were very much involved in communication satellites, right?

GERTNER: Yeah. There's a long section in my book about some of those first experiments that were held - began with what was known as passive satellite called the Echo balloon. It was really just a big silver balloon that NASA launched and Bell Labs designed and tracked in New Jersey as it moved around and the world and they sent a signal from California to New Jersey. And then in 1962, also a Bell Labs project in conjunction with NASA called Telstar...

FLATOW: Became a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GERTNER: Exactly. I was like a number song.

FLATOW: It was, yeah.

GERTNER: Yeah.

FLATOW: And - but it have remained one, big, I think, timing failure and maybe still a failure, that I remember seeing it at the '64, '65 World's Fair, which was the what?

GERTNER: You must be talking about the picture phone.

FLATOW: Absolutely.

GERTNER: Yeah. OK.

FLATOW: The picture phone, you'd stand in front of it - you'd make a phone call with a picture. No one ever wanted one.

GERTNER: Right. Right. I mean, well, you have to remember it was days before the Internet. So to have a - make a call by picture phone, another person you were talking to have to have a picture phone too. And, you know, some people in my own research and interviews would make the case well, you know, we had the right idea and I guess that's true, but it shows, you know, you can be a great innovator, but be wrong if you're timing is wrong, and they were off by, what, 30, 40 years.

FLATOW: It still hasn't been proven, that people want a picture phone. I mean, they have now the ability to do it on the Web, but how many people really are having their pictures?

GERTNER: You know what? Actually, when they were doing the picture phone, the research department at Bell Labs was doing some big, extra research because they were always doing that. And what they discovered was that it's easier to lie to someone when you're talking to them on the picture phone than when you're just doing a simple phone call.

FLATOW: Is that right?

GERTNER: It is right. I think they're distracted by the extra visual information so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: There's no lying going on in the Internet, we know that.

GERTNER: No, no. They're just completely honest.

FLATOW: That's right. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Glen(ph) in Oysterville, Washington. Hi, Glen.

GLEN: Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

GLEN: Thanks for taking my call. I actually got a couple of questions. The first question is, you know, I'm wondering about the Bell Labs' paradigm, and I wonder if your guest could contrast what that is with the idea of an organization that looks in places that haven't been looked at before or in ways that haven't been tried before. That's the first question. And the second question is a short one. You mentioned the transistor. I recall reading a report that somebody in the Midwest built a field effect transistor in the early 1930s and, unfortunately, could not duplicate it. There's some things he didn't understand, apparently, about the impurity. I wonder if your guest could also comment on that.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Glen.

GERTNER: Sure. Well, the transistor question - I mean, there were other patents. There's one famous one by Julius Lilienfeld, and there wasn't evidence that he had actually successfully, you know, understood the concepts of transistor action as John Bardeen called it, or that it was a successful device.

FLATOW: And the Bell lawyers were worried about that then, weren't they?

GERTNER: They were, indeed, yeah. Now, the first question, if I understand correct, the paradigm of this large organization, like a large research organization like that, yeah, it's - it doesn't - it was a product of its time. In the book, I sort of looked to that question. Well, what about Bell Labs was timeless? I mean, this - it was a monopoly, and we now live in now where the concept of monopoly is largely discredited, probably for many good reasons. But are there things about Bell Labs that are worth thinking about, that are worth learning from? Certainly, the idea that it could think long term and short term at the same time, I think are particularly valuable.

I think, to some extent, we live in a culture where we're very - we have tremendously innovative companies in the private sector that are thinking shorter term and understandably so, but maybe things have gotten out of balance in terms of companies able to create innovations or work, you know, years or decades on things that may pay off in the long run.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Bell Labs kind of missed the boat on the next step past the transistor, the integrated circuit, right?

GERTNER: That's right.

FLATOW: It's where everything is today.

GERTNER: Yeah. A lot of the transistor invention as well as some of what we'd call this process innovation because Bell Labs was very good at too. How do you manufacture things? I mean, this was a company that was good at finding new knowledge, good at inventing things. They're also good at manufacturing things because any idea was eventually kind of transferred - any good idea was transferred over to Western Electric, the manufacturing arm. But on the West Coast, they picked up on all these ideas.

And actually Texas Instruments, too, is a very young company, and the idea of putting not just one or two transistors on a chip but an entire circuit, which eventually led to these amazing integrated circuits, Fairchild and Intel.

FLATOW: Intel and all that.

GERTNER: Exactly.

FLATOW: Robert Noyce and all those people follow on later on.

GERTNER: Right.

FLATOW: What - are there other flops we don't know about that they never developed, that they looked into? I mean, let me go to the other direction and talk about other great successes like fiber optics.

GERTNER: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: They were involved in fiber optics.

GERTNER: They were. And in some ways, fiber optics was not a flop, but Bell Labs did not come up with fiber optic cables, these wondrous glass strands that can carry unbelievable amounts of information through laser-like pulses. That actually came out of Corning, and the reason Corning - one reason they started working on it was a man who later won the Nobel Prize, who actually was in Europe, John Kao, who went around the world trying to convince people that this was a viable technology. And he came to Bell Labs, and he said, you know, this is a future of transmission for technology, and he went to Corning as well. And Corning actually came up with something first.

Now, what Bell Labs was very good at was, once they found a good idea, they could throw unbelievable amounts of money and the most brilliant people in the world at it and so - which is what they did. And the created really the first viable fiber optic systems, as well as some of the manufacturing processes that allowed it to really have an impact.

FLATOW: Talking with Jon Gertner, author of "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's talk about where you go from here. Are there other great inventions or ideas or books in you that you'd like to explore and...

GERTNER: There are. I was thinking actually a little bit about NASA, in some ways, over the last few months and, certainly, climate change too. You know, the idea in my book, which was focused on innovation, which was a little different than invention and a little different than discovery. And I wonder, too, if it's worth looking a little deeper at some discoveries, the nature of discovery, too, which I think is a different kind of pursuit.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. One interesting thing about the invention of the transistor was that it was not kept secret, was it? That had tremendous ramifications.

GERTNER: It's almost hard to get our heads around what Bell Labs was today because it wasn't - it was a private company and a private laboratory, sort of, but not really, so they have this - they were - anything they were building, by agreement, had to be used for either the phone system or for the military. They couldn't just use transistors and start building computers, the agreement where the federal government really kept them to the telephone and communications business. So the notion was, do we share this technology? And, you know, reading those early memos from there, they felt, absolutely, they had to. It was almost part of their implicit understanding, that they were allowed - that they could use their invention for the good of telephone subscribers, but that it was necessary for them to share it and spread it around.

FLATOW: So they allowed anybody who wanted to to come up for, I think, it was $10,000 or something like that, $25,000, come out for a seminar for a week.

GERTNER: It was $25,000.

FLATOW: 25,000 and learn as much as you can.

GERTNER: That's right. They had something they called the cookbook, and they would literally teach you how to - what a transistor could do, how to make one, and, you know, some of those - some of the early scientists from Sony came over there, the engineer...

FLATOW: But they were not - there weren't even Sony at that point.

GERTNER: That's right.

FLATOW: Morita came over?

GERTNER: Mm-hmm, that's right, and Jack Kilby from Texas Instruments, who later created one of the first integrated circuits.

FLATOW: And so they then put all that back, and Sony was not allowed to - after the war, was not allowed to create military products, so they went to the consumer side with the radio.

GERTNER: That's right. And again, it's that - the question of, you know, why did Bell Labs do this? I mean, they share their technology, but they almost - they had to - they felt they had to. And as it later turned out, they really had to. By the 1950s, they were in an even stronger agreement, a pact with the federal government, saying not only do they have to share the technology, they had to make all their patents available to everyone. So they, in some ways, sowed the seeds for their own demise.

FLATOW: This is a great book. It's called "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation," with Jon Gertner. Thank you very much taking time to be with us today.

GERTNER: Thanks, Ira.

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