Peter's Reviews > The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner
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's review
Jun 26, 2012

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bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in June, 2012

Decent history of Bell Labs remarkable 60+ year run of game changing innovations, including the vacuum tube, the transistor, microwave communication technologies, communications satellites, mobile telephony, fiber optics, etc. And of course, information (communications) theory itself, courtesy of the inimitable Claude Shannon.

The book itself largely reserves commentary on the merits and broader applicability of the Bell Labs model for the end, and the treatment (when it does occur) is not great. The general conclusion seems to be that the Mervin Kelly approach to innovation worked wonders under the AT&T monopolistic umbrella when disruptive innovations would not put the company out of business. Gertner offers two examples of outfits that could pick up the Bell Labs mantle -- Jenalia Farms (Howard Hughes; biomed) and an as yet unrealized energy innovation lab -- in the final pages, but he seems to feel that what the current corporate and political climate is unlikely to generate conditions for dramatic breakthroughs any time soon.

Overall, somewhat of a disappointment. The historical and narrative potential associated with Bell Labs far exceeds what this book managed.

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