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

4.11  ·  Rating Details ·  3,439 Ratings  ·  392 Reviews
Illustrated in B/W. A sweeping, atmospheric history of Bell Labs that highlights its unparalleled role as an incubator of innovation and birthplace of the century's most influential technologies.
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 15th 2012 by Penguin Press (first published March 1st 2012)
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Andrej Karpathy
Nov 21, 2015 Andrej Karpathy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
The Idea Factory is a fascinating book for anyone interesting in the process of innovation. The book follows the particular example of Bell Labs, which at its peak in ~1940-70 was a 1000+ PhD behemoth conducting full-stack research/development/deployment in communications, with decades of runway enabled by its parent company’s (AT&T) massive government-regulated monopoly. Through conscious top down design/strategy the lab was able to sustain a golden age of innovation: it developed a vast ar ...more
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
Laura de Leon
Mar 20, 2012 Laura de Leon rated it really liked it
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
Mal Warwick
May 30, 2012 Mal Warwick rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Tom Lee
Apr 06, 2013 Tom Lee rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 27, 2014 Jade rated it really liked it
Overall, a very worthy book to read. A few comments:

+ It provides a good historical overview of how Bell Labs came to be, from its inception through its golden age to its decline. It really is a complete picture.

+ It explains really well how Bell Labs was a cog within a much bigger system, and that while we focus and celebrate the bright minds who worked in pure research, their work might not have been as impactful without the other less celebrated, very important cogs within the system. The aut
Feb 05, 2013 Vtlozano rated it liked it
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
Feb 08, 2016 Atti rated it it was amazing
the book presents an incredible story, it shows how all the innovations and technology that we take for granted like: the transistor, lasers, satellite technology, mobile phones, Shannons information theory, unix/c they all came out of an amazing environment that was Bell labs. I wonder if we will have anything like it ever again ?

i did want to give it 4 stars only since it didnt discuss the creation of unix and c in detail which also happened at bell labs, i would have included it but then i`m
Gary Schroeder
Apr 25, 2012 Gary Schroeder rated it really liked it
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
Oct 11, 2015 Tim rated it really liked it
This book seeks to answer the question, what causes technological breakthroughs? Its answer: a lot of things. To start with, you need multidisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers, a long-term vision, a lot of money, and a lot of pressing technological problems to solve. You need leadership that prioritizes technological advance above short-term profits. You need the prestige to recruit the top scientists in any field. In Bell Labs' case, it also helps a lot to be a monopoly, and the large ...more
May 02, 2012 Marks54 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 25, 2015 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book made me realize that a good part of my daily life has been due to the genius of the men who worked at Bell Labs. The Bell Labs invention of just the transistor only, changed the world and guided my life to working in a second career involving computers. I’m old enough to remember when a small portable radio would brag on its front, “7 Transistors!”, and now a single computer chip can have billions of transistors on it. I have been putting these “reviews” of mine online for a while now, ...more
May 12, 2012 Tony rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
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
Zhifei Ge
Jul 10, 2012 Zhifei Ge rated it it was amazing
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
Leo Polovets
Jul 06, 2012 Leo Polovets rated it really liked it
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
Mar 21, 2012 J.P. rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
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
Sep 16, 2014 Steve rated it liked it
Okay, so this review is going to be biased. I'm telling you straight forward. I've always had a fascination with the idea of Bell Labs, and admittedly, have been ennamoured with the place for years. I now work at Alcatel-Lucent (owner of Bell Labs) so I sort of achieved my goal in life. Anyway, I felt the book was a very very good review more of the people's lives who worked at Bell Labs, rather than actually focusing on the individual inventions. They glossed over a lot of big inventions such a ...more
Bob MacNeal
Feb 05, 2014 Bob MacNeal rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
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
Lester French
Feb 19, 2013 Lester French rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 19, 2013 Pat Rondon rated it really liked it
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
Jeff Bell
Great storytelling about what Gertner sees as the golden age of American innovation. The scientists and researchers at Bell labs had more time to think about the unknown; to research and develop in areas without an identified market goal; and to interact across disciplines inside of a monopoly unfettered by market fears and quarterly updates. The result was truly game changing innovation: the transistor, information theory, the laser, satellites, cellular mobility, and untold military advancemen ...more
Stu West
May 10, 2012 Stu West rated it liked it
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
Cathy Wu
Jun 21, 2015 Cathy Wu rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Cathy by: cathywu
This book provides hugely relevant historical context for anyone working in the EECS industry, and provides many insights for anyone doing research in general. Bell Labs truly left a legacy, and this book captures it amazingly. It reads a bit like a fairy tale and a bit like a sad story of a breakup. There is a lot to be learned and a lot of inspiration in the book. Even though Bell Labs is in the past, the book captures well that it's not the place, single inventions, or even the particular peo ...more
Dec 31, 2012 Joe rated it really liked it
Shelves: recommended
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
Oct 14, 2014 Anthoney rated it really liked it
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
Akshay Verma
Aug 09, 2014 Akshay Verma rated it it was amazing
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.
David Mayes
Oct 12, 2012 David Mayes rated it really liked it
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.
Laurelle J's
Apr 10, 2013 Laurelle J's rated it it was amazing
If you grew up in Telecommunications and Technology this book is a fascinating account of the geniuses behind Bell Labs and some of the most life-changing technology developed. Think solid state, think data transmission, think Silicon, think the transistor that runs all our computers today, underwater casings to house transpacific and transatlantic cables, etc. etc. Fascinating read.
Ken Gronnbeck
Feb 08, 2016 Ken Gronnbeck rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 09, 2012 Thomas rated it liked it
Shelves: read_2014
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.
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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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“We have now successfully passed all our deadlines without meeting any of them.” 3 likes
“You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,” Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, “but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other sixteen and a half hours.” 3 likes
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