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

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  1,511 ratings  ·  239 reviews
The definitive history of America’s greatest incubator of innovation, the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies, including the integrated circuit, the communications satellite and the cell phone.

From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs—officially, the research and development wing of AT&T—was the biggest
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Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 15th 2012 by Penguin Press HC, The
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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Disappearing Spoon by Sam KeanGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
History of Science
135th out of 217 books — 141 voters
A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel AchenbachThe Science Magpie by Simon FlynnThe Idea Factory by Jon GertnerErwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution by John GribbinThe Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson
Physics World’s Book of the Year 2012
3rd out of 10 books — 1 voter


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Community Reviews

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Laura de Leon
3 stars for a general audience, 4 stars for an audience interested in the history of technology.

The book did a very good job of describing an almost magical place and time, and almost caused me to mourn the demise of the old monopolistic phone company, which certainly is a large part of the reason so much could happen when and where it did.

I didn't know much about this era, and was interested in the personalities that made the transistor a reality, and that started looking into information scien
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Aaron Arnold
Bell Labs was probably the most important scientific institution of the 20th century. Check out this list: transistors, semiconductors, microwave towers, digital transmission, satellites, radio astronomy, information theory, quality control, fiber optics, undersea cabling, CCDs, cell phones, video phones, pulse code modulation, lasers, Unix, and the C programming language. Every single one of those inventions, discoveries, technologies, or scientific fields was either birthed or midwived at Bell ...more
Tom Lee
A really lovely history of Bell Labs and its incredible impact on the world. Gertner does a fantastic job of synthesizing existing historical accounts, while also unearthing his own wholly original findings through interviews and dives into the AT&T archives.

I found the book particularly interesting since my job is all about managing technical staff who are trying to identify worthwhile problems and new ways of looking at them. I don't mean to compare our modest efforts to those of the peopl
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Mal Warwick
Before Silicon Valley, Bell Labs Was America's Hub of Innovation

Ask yourself why the United States of America has remained the dominant economic and military power on the planet for nearly a century now. Is it the superior universal public education system we used to brag about? Is it the wealth of our natural resources: millions of acres of rich, arable land and bountiful mineral and petroleum wealth? Is it the peculiar American ability to build and manage efficient large enterprises? Is it the
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Vtlozano
There are a lot of names to keep track of. But once you do, it becomes clear that these engineers, physicists, metallurgists and other company geniuses came together to invent modern communications and a networked future. I re-read the first third to more fully appreciate the science behind the transistors and semi-conductors Bell Labs invented. And it is fascinating. At an atomic level these men did nothing less than apply science in an alchemical fashion to herd electrons and make them travel ...more
Bob MacNeal
I grew up in the 1960s about 2 miles from Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill. Several kids in my elementary school had fathers who worked at the Labs. These kids were smarter, if not oddly eccentric Midwesterners, without the blue-collar New Jersey accent and provincial world-view of my fellow classmates.

I was largely unaware of the world-changing inventions and industrial innovations occurring around me even though my father, a high-school educated New Jersey Bell Telephone switchman, was tangent
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Leo Polovets
During the first half of the the 20th century, Bell Labs employed some of the greatest scientists in the world. These were men like William Shockley, who perfected the transistor (which made personal computers possible) and Claude Shannon, who created information theory (allowing you to play CDs and DVDs even after they get scratched up). The Labs employed the founding fathers of the computer and communication age, and the Jon Gertner explores this fascinating time and place in American scientif ...more
Gary Schroeder
May 14, 2012 Gary Schroeder rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Brian Keller
The story of Bell Labs and its influence on technology developments of the 20th century is a remarkable one. Scientists there either outright invented or developed the underlying technology behind the laser, the microwave transmitter, fiber optics, the solar cell, radio astronomy and, most notably, the transistor. One of many famous Labs employees, Claude Shannon is considered the originator of information theory, the basis for all modern computing. How one institution became responsible for som ...more
Tony
THE IDEA FACTORY: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. (2012). Jon Gertner. ****.
In my college days, I, along with most of my classmates, all felt that a job at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ, would be the best of all possible worlds to demonstrate our committment to research and development. Bell Labs was where “it” was happening. As this study shows, things had been happening there for years before our dreams of careers in the 1960s. The author chose to focus, primarily, on the a
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Zhifei Ge
The book is about the rise and fall of the Bell Laboratory. Bell Lab makes the transition into the digital era a reality through their ingenious scientists, such as Bardeen, Shockley, and Shannon. To match Bell Lab's philosophy of managing ideas rather than employees, the book is composed of the discovery or invention of transistors, information theory, fiber optics and others.

Everyone today feels the impact of the transistors. The book answers how transistors come into being. In particular, wh
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J.P.
Back in the day when AT&T was a monopoly and no one had heard of Silicon Valley there was a company where scientists thought up all kinds of neat-o ideas. That was Bell Labs, funded by the megabucks raked in due to a lack of competition and where inventions like the transistor, laser and semiconductor were created.
We learn about the people who worked there including the eccentrics who seem to prevail in a high IQ environment. The author goes into enough detail on the scientific side without
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Lester French
Public disclosure: I am an Electrical Engineer and Lecturer in Mathematics. Thus, I am predisposed to geek topics. The Idea Factory is an outstanding book about the history of Bell Labs and the great minds that worked there. Mr. Gertner weaves a compelling story about the rise and fall of Bell labs. The book really is a page-turner, with great pacing. Mr. Gertner combines personal interviews with secondary research to create an in-depth tale of the greatest technology company in the world. Mr. g ...more
Pat Rondon
This is a really fascinating look into the history of Bell Labs and the lives of its most notable scientists and administrators. It's easy to overlook just how much of our modern infrastructure came directly out of this one industrial lab in just half a century: the transistor, information theory, and communications satellites, and so on. The book misses a few --- for example, Bell Labs' impact on software is relegated to two sentences that mention Unix, one of them wrong, which seems a bit scan ...more
Marks54
This is a history of an institution - the Bell Telephone Laboratories. It is told through the stories of the dominant individuals associated with the glory days of the lab. It is also told through the stories of the most famous achievements associated with Bell Labs - communication theory, the transistor (and the integrated circuits that developed from it), communication satellites, mobile phones, the UNIX computer language, semiconductors, missile guidance, etc. The author is exceptional at com ...more
Anthoney
This is one of the best pop science books I have read in a long time. Books that make you curious for more, or investigate and explore subjects, themes, styles more deeply are the books that affect me impressively, this was one such book. I am especially drawn to all the scientific anecdotes and eccentricities of genius which makes then so down to earth, so was a treat to find these in good numbers. The science was not overpowering either

Good blend of science and corporate thinking of an era now
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Akshay Verma
A book for anyone interested in Computers or Technology. Everyone talks about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, but in Bell Labs the foundation of modern technology and computers was born. It was here the Transistor, Unix, Information Theory was created. Very well written, and understandable even to those that don't know much physics and chemistry this book was a highlight for me to read as a Math Major and CS minor.
Joe
Before there was Silicon Valley, before Google, before Intel ... there was Bell Labs. Before tech went to California, it went to New Jersey - to Bell Labs. Incredible institution, not that I'm biased, having worked there for 16 years. But when, on any ordinary day at the office, you might bump into a Nobel prize winner, or an astronaut, or the inventor of some remarkable bit of technology - well, that's a pretty incredible place. The book captures some of the history and magic of this (now evisc ...more
Stu West
I can't avoid sounding like a massively stereotypical nerd when I say: Not enough Unix! I'm not expecting the author to get into the finer points of bash scripting, but I would have liked more than a single sentence which basically amounts to "Meanwhile, some computer scientists along the corridor had invented Unix."

Apart from that it's a reasonably interesting scientific history. Loses steam a bit towards the end when the Labs fall into disgrace and disrepair and everyone starts dying of Alzhei
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Terry
The Idea Factory is part history and part love letter from the author to a bygone era of innovation. I felt slightly voyeuristic reading it, but it's like discovering someone's fan letter to celebrities only to find they're addressed to the same people as yours. You see each other, at first embarrassed, then you smile.

Bell Labs contained some of the greatest scientific and engineering mind of the 20th century and not only were they in the same country, organization, and state, but the same campu
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Prasanna
The book was a slow start for me until it reached Claude Shannon, then it became hard to put down. It's a history of technology -- or more precisely, a treatise on how technology has been influenced by the inventions and innovations at Bell Labs. What's interesting is that this book takes great care in differentiating out the terms invention and innovation. The former meaning the act of coming up with a new, novel idea or tool. Whereas innovation would mean taking this idea or a set of ideas int ...more
Denise
Back when there was only one phone company and it was a "regulated monopoly," its leaders decided they needed to hire the smartest engineers and scientists in the country, put some of them to work doing pure research, others on application and development, so that they could provide products that would work for twenty years with no defects. They built a building with extra long corridors and had a rule that lab doors had to be kept open, so that chemists and physicists and metallurgists and math ...more
Katie
A nonfiction book about Bell Labs--where technological innovation happened in America prior to Silicon Valley in the late 1990's. This book focused on the beginning of Bell Labs in the early twentieth century, through its breakup and demise in the late twentieth century. In between all that, a lot of stuff was invented and a lot of eccentric and brilliant men (yes, mostly/all men) worked and played there.

This is an accessible book for the layperson, with perhaps just a smidge too much technical
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Mark Tatge
This is one of the better books I have read in a long time. Great characters. Great storytelling. Jon Gertner does an excellent job of telling us what the former Bell Labs meant to both innovation and American business. He gets inside the culture of Bell Labs, he explains how it was a patent machine that was forced to share its intellectual property and how Bell Labs was essentially financed by the Bell System, a government sponsored vertically integrated monopoly. Bell Labs provided key advice ...more
David Mayes
I was motivated to read the book because of an NPR interview with the author, Jon Gertner, and my desire to understand the role of Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce at Bell Labs, but got much more from the history of this incredible. Sadly, in decline it morphed into Lucent Technologies, which bought my company at the time, Ascend Communications, and was later devoured by Alcatel..Such are the accelerated life cycles of high tech companies.
Thomas
There's a lot of interesting history here, but not a lot of depth. Most of all, I feel a bit like Gertner is a bit too focused on the positive side of the Bell Labs phenomenon, but steps lightly around the monopolistic and domineering side of the operation. Still, tons of interesting background and biographical information on the various personalities involved.
Aaron Adamson
I really loved this book. I'm an avid reader and science enthusiast, but somehow I had never really gotten familiar with a lot of the big names and contributions of Bell Labs. This is a story that needs to be told more often... although it is technically no more than the tale of a specific research group in one company, it ends up being something much more profound. Fundamentally, this book chronicles the metamorphosis of our civilization from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, of which ...more
Nicholas Moryl
More of a character study around the key people who worked at Bell Labs than anything else, and ends up lamenting the lack of fundamental research going on currently. One can't help but wonder what would have happened in a counterfactual world where Bell's monopoly wasn't protected.

Gertner's point about modern businesses lacking fundamental research may be true, but I don't think it's necessarily a cause for alarm. The counterpoint raised by "The Second Machine Age" is that innovation is also a
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Noah
This topic seemed right in my wheelhouse, but this book was a little too dry for me. I wish Gernter had worried less about comprehensiveness and cut out some of the cruft to create more of a story arc.
Mirrani
We wake up in the morning, turn on our televisions and computers that stream digital information everywhere, check our cell phones to see what has bounced off of towers and satellites, and we don't think about any of it. We don't think about how long that cell phone has been in the hands of human kind, we don't think about how television has changed, we don't think about how the satellites got put together to do what they do or where they get their power from. It's all just there. This book will ...more
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(From his website)

I’m currently an articles editor at Fast Company magazine, where I write and edit features on innovation and technology. Between 2004 and 2011, I worked as a writer at The New York Times Magazine, where I wrote about science, business, society, and (sometimes) economics. In March 2012 Penguin Press published The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. T
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