Marks54'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
May 02, 2012

really liked it
Read in April, 2012

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 communicating the key insights in a given technological achievement without going into the details that would keep the book from being accessible to general readers. For those who are junkies for details, there are sufficient references to original documents, many of which are available on the internet for little or no cost.

What did I like the most about the book? Well the author did a really good job at showing how a number of fundamental basic research results had to come together in order to produce an innovation. For example, he discussed all of the developments that would be necessary for an "active" telecommunications satellite to be developed (Telstar). He was also effective at showing all the knowledge that had to be brought together to develop the system of cellular communications that we take for granted today.

While it is not a focal point of the book, Gertner is also effective at showing the economic and business environment that was necessary for the Bell Labs model of innovation to work and why this model was so ineffective once the Bell System was deregulated. It is a complex story that incites strong opinions today and the author does his job well here.

The people stories are also interesting. My favorites were the stories of Claude Shannon, who literally "wrote the book" on the binary/digital world and William Shockley, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the transistor but had a very troubled and turbulent life afterwards.

For most anyone interested in the history of science and technology, this book will have something worthwhile. As I said, it is not that technical, but that did not seem necessary to the story. The technical details can be obtained elsewhere.
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