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

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  6,352 ratings  ·  592 reviews
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, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs.

Paperback, 432 pages
Published May 30th 2013 by Penguin (first published April 13th 2012)
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Andrej Karpathy
Nov 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Shane Parrish
Jan 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Simon Eskildsen
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Charles Haywood
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When we talk about innovation and invention these days, we think of Silicon Valley and companies like Google, Apple, and Intel. But it wasn’t always like this. Till the 1980s, it was the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, which came to one’s mind when thinking of innovation and creativity. At the peak of its reputation in the late 1960s, Bell Labs owned almost 33000 patents. It is overwhelming even to enumerate the inventions. The Labs, at its height, comprised almost fifteen thousand ...more
Chunyang Ding
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
Deepak Thomas
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
Sep 16, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Zaki Shaheen
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
if you're interested in the history of science, tech, or innovation should buy and read this book ...more
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
Dennis Boccippio
jon Gertner's "The Idea Factory" tells an important story about the history of many of the communications and information technology underpinnings of our current era. More importantly, it explores (indirectly and eventually) a major question of what is needed to make large basic and applied research labs successful. I'm glad I read this book, but can't say I necessarily enjoyed reading it. As such I'm struggling with whether to rate 3 or 4 stars ... if Goodreads allowed 3.5, that'd be it.

Carl Rannaberg
Jun 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact the work done in Bell Labs during the 20th century has had on the lives of billions of people on earth. Transistors (building blocks of computer processors), undersea cables, fiber optic cables, cellular networks, mobile phones, lasers, radars, satellite phone calls, CCD (sensors in digital camera), Unix operating system and C programming language are just a few examples of innovations which came out of Bell Labs.
It also has resulted in nine Nobel Priz
Yash Patel
Oct 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quite interesting! The book spans the entirety of the history of Bell Labs, from its spinning out of AT&T's monopoly to its eventual demise in the 1990s. That being said, the emphasis is definitely much more so on the highlights that came out of Bell Labs, specifically in the telecom front (not much is made mention of from the computing side, such as Unix or compilers). The presentation was really well done, where Gertner focuses on two things primarily in the book: the major personalities and w ...more
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
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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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