Book review: ‘The Idea Factory’ by Jon Gertner

For generations of industry research executives, AT&T’s Bell Telephone Laboratories served as an inspiration: a warren of youthful scientists and engineers assigned to go where their intellects took them, not especially concerned about serving the corporate bottom line, picking up cartloads of Nobel Prizes along the way. Bell Labs was the model for, among others, Xerox Corp.'s legendary Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, which spun out the personal computer, Windows-style displays, Ethernet and many other advances that delivered their bounty more to society at large than to the parent company.

Yet as Jon Gertner shows us in “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” this image of corporate research in basic science as public philanthropy always owed more to Ma Bell’s PR department than to reality. Even the labs most storied achievements — the invention of the transistor and the discovery of the background radiation left over from the big bang, were tethered to its mandate to help improve AT&T’s nationwide communications network of cable and copper wires.

“The Idea Factory” is an expansive treatment of the labs’ history, as it must be to encompass an institution that was born in 1924 and still exists today, albeit in splintered form thanks to the court-ordered breakup of AT&T in 1984. Gertner wisely chooses to focus his story on a handful of compelling narratives, such as the invention of the transistor. The tensions among the three nominal inventors, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley, have been chronicled often. But Gertner’s version is especially well told; it retains its fascination in part because of the outstanding peculiarities of Shockley, whose notorious embrace of racial eugenics later in life is part of a behavior pattern that led eventually to his leaving Bell Labs to found his own semiconductor company, and to the breakup of that company when several top aides fled to found Intel Corp.

Shockley is only one of the eccentrics populating this book. A more engaging example of the species is Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, whose perception that communications traffic could be reduced to discrete units (known as “bits”) regardless of its nature has helped drive computer and network design — and who could be spotted riding down the long, straight corridors of the labs Murray Hill, N.J., headquarters on a unicycle while juggling.

Yet Gertner’s focus may be too narrow. Curiously, he gives short shrift to Bell Labs’ accomplishments that might be of greatest interest to readers outside the communications industry. There’s a lengthy treatment of the labs key role in developing the Echo and Telstar communications satellites, which became not only scientific but cultural milestones — but not of one of the great discoveries that work fostered. That was the discovery of the cosmic background radiation that brought the Nobel Prize in 1978 to Arno Penzias and Robert W. Wilson, who had been working with a giant horn antenna built for the Echo project. There is also only glancing mention of Unix, the computer operating system developed at Bell Labs (initially without the labs formal support), the forebear of Linux and Apple’s Mac OS X.

Although Gertner does not overlook Bell Labs’ failures, he might well have extracted some lessons from what may be AT&T’s worst technological oversight: The company not only declined to participate in a project by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, to develop a data network known as ARPAnet, but actively interfered with the effort by claiming that data transmissions would foul its phone lines. ARPAnet, of course, was the seed of the Internet. The irony here is that as early as 1967 John R. Pierce, one of the lab’s leading executives, had forecast the evolution of communications into a single network carrying voice, text, video and data; AT&T’s failure to pay attention to Pierce’s vision left it on the outside of the Internet looking in. But it’s not part of Gertner’s story.

“The Idea Factory” might have benefited from a fuller discussion of the fate of corporate research in today’s world. For the model that Bell Labs represented for decades has been eradicated, done in by corporate economics and, yes, by the very technologies spawned by Bell Labs itself. Basic scientific research has been ceded to an academia facing its own economic challenges.

Yet as this book documents, in its heyday Bell Labs truly was a marvelous innovation machine. Its string of Nobel Prizes stretches from 1937 to 2009, when two of its scientists won the physics prize for their invention of the charge-coupled device, the heart of today’s digital cameras. But that prize, fresh as it is, is itself an artifact of history: The work it honors was done in 1969.

Hiltzik, a Times business columnist, is the author of “The New Deal: A Modern History” and “Colossus: The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of Hoover Dam.”