21 January 2013

A company company

I checked out another non-fiction book from the Northfield Public Library a month ago. The fact that it took me a month to finish it ought to be an indicator. The book was Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

This book had been on my "to read" list since I'd seen a laudatory review of it last year. In addition, I grew up in a Ma Bell family. My dad worked for one of the Baby Bells and was a true believer. So, I grew up seeing the company magazine and hearing stories about the great Bell System, including that wonder, Bell Labs. When I was in high school (in the early 1960s), I got a Bell Labs kit for making a solar cell and another for making a transistorized buzzer circuit that was powered by the solar cell. They both worked for me.

Gertner's book, like Sam Kean's book on genetics, was disappointing.

I decided that The Idea Factory... was a good set of notes which could be used to write a book, but it wasn't a real book. Like Kean's book, it had no voice. There were stories to tell, but the disjointed anecdotes were not a story. There were characters, but their appearances and disappearances in the pages of The Idea Factory... were hard to follow. I'm sure there are more dramatic stories about the development of the first kinds of transistors and the rivalry among the ambitious inventors, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.

Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ

Gertner kept relating anecdotes and when he finished with one, he'd circle back to the decades between 1939 and 1959 to begin another (sort of like the circles around the Bell Labs HQ, above). As a reader, I felt like a tether ball winding round and round a pole until reaching the end of my rope and then being pushed back in the opposite direction until I hit the pole again.

There are other important stories to tell about the relationship of business, research, engineering, and product development hiding in this book, but they're not there. Gertner describes a bit about the lengths to which AT&T went to preserve their telephone monopoly, but that probably deserves its own book. (That book might exist in the business school library for all I know.) There are hints about things like business decisions to promote picture phones and initially discard fiber optics, but they're only mentioned.

There are hints about the revolving door between Bell Labs and the U.S. government (especially top secret R & D), but it's not told.

There are hints about patron-client relationships and keeping friends on the payroll even when they no longer worked for Bell Labs.

There's a brief description of the break up AT&T and the disappearance of Bell Labs into Lucent and then into Alcatel•Lucent. The merger of some parts of the old AT&T's engineering, manufacturing, and research organizations probably also deserves its own case study in business schools, and it might also exist (in the history section now). And what about the developments outside of Bell Labs that became competitors with AT&T? I really expected to read about how Bell Labs was involved with DARPA in some of the initial development of the Internet. There's nothing in the book, and Bell Labs isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the development of the Internet. How'd all those smart guys working in communications miss that?

That last bit made me realize that, in spite of the propaganda I grew up with, Bell Labs was not unique. Every really large corporation does R&D. Bell Labs did come up with some remarkable inventions, like the transistor. But Texas Instruments came up with integrated circuits. Xerox PARC came up with laser printers and computer mice. Hewlett Packard developed scientific calculators and thermal printing. Microsoft, Apple, and Google invented themselves. And, to go back a bit, Thomas Edison, James Watt, Eli Whitney, and Henry Ford came up with some amazing things. So, to call Bell Labs' heyday "the Great Age of American Innovation" is a pretty big overstatement.

So, what I was looking for was a book, not a collection of notes and anecdotes. I guess I'll have to go back and read something more by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Tim Berners-Lee.

Have you read Jon Gertner's book, The Idea Factory?

What did you think about it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

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