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

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  5,470 ratings  ·  533 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, an
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 15th 2012 by Penguin Press
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Andrej Karpathy
Nov 21, 2015 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 array ...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 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
Maciej Nowicki
Dec 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
The idea factory is about innovation management. It explores the history of Bell Labs from the 1920’ to the 1980’. Jon Gartner, the author of the book, answers one, the most important question of our era – what causes innovation? The book is an insightful and appealing record of the years of discovery at the Labs and core milestones in the history of technology that was achieved.

Bell Labs was the R&D department at AT&T which was a completely different organisation back then. It was the telephon
Tom Lee
Apr 06, 2013 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 people wh
Simon Eskildsen
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reread
What a wonderful account of the most important industrial labs in history: far-ranging telephone networks, transistors, amplifiers, information theory, error-correcting codes, satellites, C, Unix, fiber optic cables, and many more inventions that completely shaped the 20th and 21st century. It has almost everything: scientific depth, vivid accounts of the peculiar characters, and how the culture became such a stronghold for innovation. The only thing that felt was missing was a better account on ...more
Mal Warwick
May 30, 2012 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
Oct 27, 2014 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
Shane Parrish
Jan 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A friend of ours, at the helm of a leading-edge R&D team within a tech giant, first recommended this book to us. As he prepared for his role, this book provided useful examples of how to do innovation well within a large company. For those of us looking for ways to generate creativity and innovation in our teams, turning back to be inspired by the glory years of Bell Labs (1920s-1980s) is highly beneficial. They brought us the transistor, the solar cell, the foundation of modern operating system ...more
Charles J
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us. In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement. Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a ...more
Chunyang Ding
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a history of Bell Labs, true, but perhaps more accurately, this book is a history of American engineering throughout the 20th century, since 20th century American engineering was the engineering of Bell Labs. From the telegraph to the internet, the span of innovation, experimentation, and discovery captured in the offices at Brooklyn and Murray Hill easily dwarf any other institution of that era. Perhaps no other company has so thoroughly touched our lives today, creating a new para ...more
Sep 16, 2014 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
Feb 05, 2013 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
Zaki Shaheen
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Superb. A recommended reading if you are fascinated by the marvel of modern communication technology and the people who invented our present. I would also recommend 'the innovators' as complimentary to this book.

It is amazing how a group of motivated men and women engineers and scientists, clad in suit and tie in the heart of New Jersey churned out incremental innovations that literally define the modern world. They were thinking on the scale of decades. Yet not many of these names are as widel
May 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding. Though not exhaustive by any means, it is written in a popular style that explains the basics of how the technologies work and how they were developed, at a level I found suitable. Bell Labs was truly an amazing place. They are responsible for the vacuum tube, transistor, maser, laser, UNIX, C, fiber optics, cellular networks, etc. Essentially, as the book states, it would be hard to find any device we use today that is not based on the discoveries and refinement of the work done at ...more
Stu West
May 10, 2012 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
Feb 08, 2016 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
Jun 09, 2012 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.
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
For me, this is one of the few true books that addresses the history of the innovation process and industrial research. The history of Bell Labs is a great example.

"The scientists and engineers at Bell Labs had been producing too many ideas over the past half century for a single company to handle", Peter Drucker
A book that gets better once you're past the halfway mark & an important work of scientific history, nonetheless.

Three & a half stars seems fair.
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019
if you're interested in the history of science, tech, or innovation should buy and read this book
Max Nova
“The Idea Factory” is a fascinating look at the lives of some of the key men who shaped Bell Labs and created its greatest inventions. The scale of Bell Labs’ impact is truly incredible and this book does a good job of explaining the history of the institution and what factors contributed to its remarkable output. Gertner also explores the relationship between Bell Labs and the government - including some secret military work that Bell Labs did for the government (including helping set up the NS ...more
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a history of Bell Labs, expressed through the stories of several of its leading scientists and their associated accomplishments: William Shockley and the transistor, Claude Shannon and information theory, John Pierce and the communication satellite. These stories frequently cross one and other and many characters like Robert Millikan (of oil drop experiment fame, arguably the scientific godfather of the whole thing) Mervin Kelly and Rudi Kompfner span multiple storylines. In the narrativ ...more
Mrinmoy Kundu
Apr 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
This excellent document of the famous Bell Laboratory chronicles its history and how it was able to become the citadel of innovation among constant backup of its parent company's soaring monopoly over the pre and post war America. The Bell Lab was the pioneer of every aspect modern telecom technology - from transistor to maser, from transatlantic telephone cable to the era of fiber optics and satellite communication; all of was possible not because of some quirky luck, but because of a well-thou ...more
Gary Schroeder
Apr 25, 2012 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 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
A fascinating history of Bell Laboratories (part of AT&T/Ma Bell before the breakup), the colorful and brilliant personalities, and the earth-changing technologies they developed. Innovations like radar, transistors, satellites, and cell-phone service - in addition to their earlier work on vacuum tubes and the reliable and clear telephone service - as well as the host of other technologies they spawned like integrated circuits came from the corporate think-tank in New Jersey. Much of what we tak ...more
May 02, 2012 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
Deepak Thomas
Mar 28, 2019 rated it liked it
The Idea Factory is a long detailed history of Bell Labs, one of the most prestigious institutions of research in modern history. All of the current day communication, from the telephone to the internet, owes something to Bell Labs and its team of geniuses. They are also responsible for the boom in computers thanks to their invention of the transistor, UNIX, C language and information theory. Nine Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed here. For a long time, Bell Labs was to innovatio ...more
Feb 25, 2015 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
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(From his website)

I’m a book author and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and I tend to describe myself as both a journalist and historian. In addition to the Sunday Magazine, my writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Wired, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Technology Review and Fast Company. Usually I write about science, nature,

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“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.” 5 likes
“The first is that if you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated;” 5 likes
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