From Transistors to Telstar, Idea Factory Traces Bell Labs’ Legacy

The Telstar 1 communications satellite is just one of the wonders that came out of Bell Labs.
Photo: Bell Labs

At the height of Bell Labs’ influence, from the 1920s to the 1980s, the corporate research powerhouse seemed unstoppable. The transistor, UNIX, the C programming language, the modern photovoltaic cell, the CCD chip, the field of information theory and the first global communications satellites all bear Bell Labs DNA, for starters.

The tales of the characters inhabiting Bell Labs’ hallowed corridors are legion. Bell Labs was a place where computing giants like Alan Turing and Claude Shannon silently met for tea during the height of World War II. Sci-fi visionaries including Arthur C. Clarke and avant-garde musicians like John Cage came to Bell Labs in New Jersey to hang out with scientists and exchange ideas. When Stanley Kubrick wanted to figure out what a phone booth in space might look like, he sent his people to Bell Labs.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, an expansive new history by Jon Gertner, is a book that needed to be written. Through deep archival research and extensive primary interviews, Gertner traces the history of a singular and peculiar American institution that produced more major discoveries and Nobel laureates than most universities.

The book, published last month, grabs the baton from James Gleick’s 2011 hit The Information, which partly explored the history of Bell Labs. Like Gleick, Gertner focuses on a few key characters. (The authors overlap on a few, with both spending a significant amount of time on Shannon, the father of modern information theory.)

The two books take drastically different approaches. Gleick’s writing in The Information is flashier and more fluid than Gertner’s meticulous prose. Gleick’s chapters play out like fast-moving movie scenes; Gertner paints slow, detailed still images, the way a 17th-century Dutch painter would. The Information jumps backward and forward through history to establish grand, sweeping themes, while The Idea Factory forges a more or less straight chronological path. The Idea Factory goes where The Information doesn’t — to less famous but equally larger-than-life figures like Mervin Kelly, John Pierce and Bill Shockley, people who quietly changed history without most people noticing.

Bell Labs upended all preconceived notions of innovation. Instead of being a nimble, agile startup company, it was a massive, many-tentacled organization funded by the Bell telephone company — a monopoly that controlled phone service in nearly all American homes until it was finally broken up in the ’80s. Bell Labs did much more than the basic nuts and bolts of telephony — in the world of Bell Labs, practically anything could be justified in the name of research.

“Bell Labs was a golden era,” said Max Mathews, Bell Labs’ longtime director of acoustic research, when I interviewed him three weeks before his death last year at the age of 84. Mathews was widely known as the father of computer music — chalk that up as another Bell Labs innovation, from the late 1950s.

Dave Tompkins, who explored Bell Labs via the history of the vocoder in the fascinating book How to Wreck a Nice Beach, writes in Slate: “Upon receiving The Idea Factory, I raided the index for vocoders and Project Xs, found none, and realized it’s hard to compete with all the lasers, radars, transistors, and Claude Shannons.”

When I received the book, I raided the index for mentions of music, film, animation and computer graphics — all areas in which Bell Labs played a pioneering and unlikely role. On these subjects, The Idea Factory is mostly silent, with the author spending just a few pages on Mathews’ work in digital sound synthesis. Pierce’s heavy engagement with computer music doesn’t get much ink, either.

Nor do we hear about the many famous 20th-century composers who visited Bell Labs — people like Edgard Varese, John Cage and James Tenney — and what they did there. The institution’s involvement in “9 Evenings: Theatre Engineering,” a series of events in the 1960s that paired big-time artists like Robert Rauschenberg with Bell Labs engineers, doesn’t get a mention.

The Idea Factory also noticeably lacks strong female figures; when women appear, they tend to be the devoted wives of the Bell Labs men. While Bell Labs was male-dominated to the hilt, female scientists and engineers did exist. They included people like Joan Miller, a mathematical acoustics expert, and ace programmer Erma Schneider, one of the first people to be awarded a software patent, in 1971. Bell Labs also hosted pioneering computer artist Lillian Schwartz and visiting composers like Laurie Spiegel.

It’s impossible to encompass the entirety of Bell Labs’ wide-ranging scope in a single book, and Gertner, a science writer for The New York Times Magazine and an editor at Fast Company, does an impressive job of illuminating many of Bell Labs’ key technological triumphs in the 20th century. (See the video below for a look at the creation of the transistor.)

The book also puts forth an intriguing question: What happened to Bell Labs? The campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, still exists, in a drastically pared-down form as Alcatel-Lucent, but it lacks the seismic impact and long-term vision of its storied predecessor.

Was Bell Labs a historical oddity, never to be repeated again, or are there lessons to be gleaned? Gertner addresses this question, but there are no simple answers. “Bell Labs functioned in a world not ours,” he quotes John Pierce as saying near the end of the book. Whether the 21st century will produce another Bell Labs remains to be seen.

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