The Idea Factory

in a place where people neither walked fast nor talked fast, young Mervin Kelly did both. His father—kindly and


in a place where people neither walked fast nor talked fast, young Mervin Kelly did both.


IN 1910, when Kelly set off for mining school, few Americans recognized the differences between a scientist, an engineer, and an inventor.


When necessary, Edison relied on assistants trained in math and science to investigate the principles of his inventions, since theoretical underpinnings were often beyond his interest. “I can always hire mathematicians,” he once said at the height of his fame, “but they can’t hire me.”


The Vail strategy, in short, would measure the company’s progress “in decades instead of years.”


inventions are a valuable part, but invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced.”


The point of this kind of experimentation was to provide a free environment for “the operation of genius.” His point was that genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could. But genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.


The Labs, which had typically hired a few hundred young employees every spring, sending out a team of recruiters to speak with professors at colleges around the country in search of graduate students who might be well suited for industrial research,


Almost all of them had found a way out—a high school teacher, oftentimes, who noticed something about them, a startling knack for mathematics, for example, or an insatiable curiosity about electricity, and had tried to nurture this talent with extra assignments or after-school tutoring, all in the hope (never explained to the young men but realized by them all, gratefully, many years later) that the students could be pushed toward a local university and away from the desolation of a life behind a plow or a cash register.


In Townes’s view, those “farms and small towns are good training grounds for experimental physics.”


And so Townes sat on the Mexico City train in third class in the summer of 1939, “on slatted wood benches that were none too comfortable, and played a Nazi’s accordion and sang songs with Mexican fruit pickers on their way home from the fields in the United States.”


“The [Bell] System,” Danielian pointed out, “constitutes the largest aggregation of capital that has ever been controlled by a single private company at any time in the history of business.


There were no telephone ringers at the very start; callers would get the attention of those they were calling by yelling loudly (often, “ahoy!”) into the receiver until someone on the other end noticed.


“There is always a larger volume of work that is worth doing than can be done currently,”


Shockley schooled himself in parlor tricks and amateur magic. Sometimes he would use it to entertain a crowd at parties; other times he would use it to interrupt a sober affair or gently humiliate a lecturer. Bouncing balls materialized from nowhere, flowerpots exploded, bouquets popped suddenly from his sleeve in place of a handshake—incidents that created a distraction from the seriousness of institutional life


Science had no true owners, only participants and contributors.


Frank Jewett and Oliver Buckley were appalled by Espenschied’s “incredible stupidity”—though it was not clear whether their displeasure related to the content of Espenschied’s opinions or his willingness to share them.


“We have now successfully passed all our deadlines without meeting any of them.”


Shockley would have spent his career trapped in a prison of elegant theory.


“A research man,” he later remarked, “is endlessly searching to find a use for something that has no use.”


There isn’t an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I’m the S.O.B. in the group.20 It was entirely possible. Brattain, rarely


There isn’t an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I’m the S.O.B. in the group.


Brattain realized that when Bardeen did choose to interpret data or ask a question, a profundity was likely to tumble forth.


in fact there were occasions where I had to go to another department and Bardeen was left in the lab and he was anxious to get the experiment done and I said, ‘Well, there it is, John, I’ll be back in about an hour.’ And I’d come back in about an hour and John would be gone and I’d ask the other people in the lab what happened and they’d say, ‘Oh, he worked for about five minutes and said, “Oh, damn!” and left.’”


they would get in their cars and drive a few miles south along Diamond Hill Road, a narrow, sinuous county highway, to visit a small hamburger joint called Snuffy’s. The Bell Labs cafeteria didn’t serve beer. Snuffy’s did.


Eccentricity—not wearing socks, say, or using company time to build gadgets that had perhaps not even a glancing relationship to the phone business—could be forgiven. Other behaviors could not. MTSs were never to seduce the secretaries. They were not to work with their doors closed. They were not to refuse help to a colleague, regardless of his rank or department, when it might be necessary. And perhaps most important, the supervisor was authorized to guide, not interfere with, the people he (or she) managed.


The development expert who was chosen for this responsibility—a brilliant, bullying, hard-drinking engineer


“No time to waste,” Kelly told him. “I’m going to Europe for the next month, Morton, and when I get back I’d like to see your recommendations as to how we should go about developing this thing. Goodbye.”


But these realizations would come together later. After hearing Kelly’s orders to produce a road map for transistor production, Morton spent the next twenty-nine days in a state of terror. On the thirtieth he settled on a development plan.


if you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated; the second is that if you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated.


He had long understood that innovation was a matter of economic imperatives.


lunch—“I put my feet on my desk and tilted my chair back to the window sill for a short nap, a habit then well established,”


Pfann had returned to his office after lunch—“I put my feet on my desk and tilted my chair back to the window sill for a short nap, a habit then well established,” he recalled. He had scarcely dozed off when he suddenly awoke with a solution. “I brought the chair down with a clack I still remember,” he said.43 Pfann envisioned passing a molten zone—a coil of metal, in effect, creating a superheated ring—along the length of a rod of germanium; as the ring moved, it would strafe the impurities out of the germanium. Kelly would eventually tell people that Pfann’s idea—it was called “zone refining,” and was an ingenious adaptation of a technique metallurgists had used on other materials—ranked as one of the most important inventions of the past twenty-five years. Kelly didn’t tell people it resulted from a man sleeping on the job.


One professor at MIT, informed in the late 1930s that young Shannon was taking piloting lessons, considered intervening so the scientific community wouldn’t risk losing him prematurely in an air crash.4 There was, in other words, a quiet accord among the professors at MIT: People like Shannon come along so rarely that they must be protected.


“I believed it was a classic, a comment which I very seldom make,” Bush said of


“I believed it was a classic, a comment which I very seldom make,” Bush said of Shannon’s thesis.


Still only twenty-three years old, and not at all certain what to do with himself, the young man wrote to Vannevar Bush to ask what he should work on next. . . .


Bush delighted in connecting students and friends to one another within his large social and professional web.


At Shannon’s suggestion, they made love one evening—“he wooed me,” Norma says—in the differential analyzer room, to which Shannon had a key.


“I poured tea for him,” Norma recalls of Einstein, “and he told me I was married to a brilliant, brilliant man.”


as Shannon took a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Albert Einstein was in residence. “I poured tea for him,” Norma recalls of Einstein, “and he told me I was married to a brilliant, brilliant man.”


least as it was originally conceived, Fry’s department was not supposed to do research; it was meant to be a consulting organization to the engineers, physicists, and chemists at the Labs who needed help. “At that time engineers of all types were pathetically ignorant of mathematics,”


At least as it was originally conceived, Fry’s department was not supposed to do research; it was meant to be a consulting organization to the engineers, physicists, and chemists at the Labs who needed help. “At that time engineers of all types were pathetically ignorant of mathematics,”


it “was full of people who had a major area where they worked, just like I did, too. But they couldn’t turn a good problem down. If one came by you dropped what you were doing and had fun with it. Our job was to stick our nose into everybody’s business.”


would end up taking them more than a decade. “I am very seldom interested in applications,” he later said. “I am more interested in the elegance of a problem. Is it a good problem, an interesting problem?”


the realization of those dreams didn’t only depend on the hardware of new technologies, such as the transistor. A mathematical guide for the system’s engineers, a blueprint for how to move data around with optimal efficiency, which was what Shannon offered, would be crucial, too. Shannon maintained that all communications systems could be thought of in the same way, regardless of whether they involved a lunchroom conversation, a postmarked letter, a phone call, or a radio or telephone transmission.


The semantic aspects of communication were irrelevant to the engineering problem, he wrote. Or to say it another way: One shouldn’t necessarily think of information in terms of meaning. Rather, one might think of it in terms of its ability to resolve uncertainty


“To make the chance of error as small as you wish?” Robert Fano, a friend and colleague of Shannon’s, later pointed out. “How he got that insight, how he even came to believe such a thing, I don’t know.” All modern communications engineering, from cell phone transmissions to compact discs and deep space communications, is based upon this insight.


In the midst of Shannon’s career, some lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled, “he drew people out, got them thinking.” More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.


With Shannon’s startling ideas on information, it was one of the rare moments in history, an academic would later point out, “where somebody founded a field, stated all the major results, and proved most of them all pretty much at once.”


Eventually, mathematicians would debate not whether Shannon was ahead of his contemporaries. They would debate whether he was twenty, or thirty, or fifty years ahead.


“He never argued his ideas,” Brock McMillan says of Shannon. “If people didn’t believe in them, he ignored those people.”


They wrote to the oracle at Bell Labs to ask about computers or chess or information theory, and then tried to tease out what he was thinking and why he was thinking it.


obviously that was interesting as well as pleasing to Shannon. “My characterization of his smartness is that he would have been the world’s best con man if he had taken a turn in that direction,” Slepian says.


Betty would remark to visitors.18 Many years later Shannon would leave behind these half-written papers along with scraps of ideas and mathematical scribbles that were titled “good problems”—but with no indication as to whether he had ever found it worth his time to discover good answers.


“We’ve got boxes full of unfinished papers,” Betty would remark to visitors.18 Many years later Shannon would leave behind these half-written papers along with scraps of ideas and mathematical scribbles that were titled “good problems”—but with no indication as to whether he had ever found it worth his time to discover good answers.


finally, he would not come at all. Shannon’s office, its nameplate burnished and its door always closed, stood in wait. He remained in the Bell Laboratories telephone book. Those who phoned his office discovered they would instead be directed to a Bell Labs secretary, who would inform them that no, no, unfortunately, Dr. Shannon wasn’t in today.


Even sixty years after the fact, it is worth pausing to consider what Kelly was trying to do in the London speech, for he not only tried to explain the empire he was building, but why he was building it.


development—began using the word regularly.4 What he went on to describe in London, though, was a systematized approach to innovation, the fruit of three decades of consideration at the Labs. To Kelly, inventing the future wasn’t just a matter of inventing things for the future; it also entailed inventing ways to invent those things.


there is also something paradoxical in the thought that there should be established methods of creating the revolutionary.”


Bell Labs had the advantage of necessity; its new inventions, as one of Kelly’s deputies, Harald Friis, once said, “always originated because of a definite need.” In Kelly’s view, the members of the technical staff had the great advantage of working to improve a system where there were always problems, always needs.


nuclear physics), that departments could have a “critical


the institute of creative technology should take it upon itself to further the education and abilities of its promising but less accomplished employees, not for reasons of altruism but because industrial science and engineering had become so complex that it now required men and women who were trained beyond the level that America’s graduate schools could attain.


and computer systems. Or to put it another way, the solution to a technological problem invariably created other problems that needed solutions. So making something truly new seemed to ensure that you would be making something else truly new before too long.


“He had one official driver for his car, a company car,” Brock McMillan, the Bell Labs mathematician, says. “And he would beat on this guy—‘drive faster, drive faster, get going, get going.’” When Kelly once hectored the driver so intently that he hit a car pulling out of the company lot, Kelly left the wreck without pause. He walked back to the office to get another car. “You get paid for the seven and


“He had one official driver for his car, a company car,” Brock McMillan, the Bell Labs mathematician, says. “And he would beat on this guy—‘drive faster, drive faster, get going, get going.’” When Kelly once hectored the driver so intently that he hit a car pulling out of the company lot, Kelly left the wreck without pause. He walked back to the office to get another car.


“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.”


“Twice he submitted his resignation to the president of AT&T, stating that important work at Bell Laboratories was not being adequately funded,” a colleague would recall. “In each case, he got the funds.”


The constant travel and constant meetings and constant speaking engagements—and almost certainly, too, his constant chain-smoking—sometimes resulted in bouts of utter exhaustion, requiring him to take time off and convalesce near his tulip gardens.20 But within a week or two he would come roaring back.


The success of the work had thrust Kelly, willingly, into a shadow society of wise men—people like Frank Jewett, or Vannevar Bush—whose scientific training and large social networks allowed them to move smoothly between the elite circles of industry, academia, military intelligence, and public policy.


Being a physicist with Shockley, well then, you had better be very, very good or you’re going to have a hell of a time.”


Working with silicon, as Tanenbaum soon discovered, was far more frustrating than working with Shockley.


What was striking but almost always overlooked about its invention, Fuller later recalled, was that all three inventors of the device were working in different buildings. “The solar cell just sort of happened,” he said. It was not “team research” in the traditional sense, but it was made possible “because the Labs policy did not require us to get the permission of our bosses to cooperate—at the Laboratories one could go directly to the person who could help.”


Robert Noyce famously described what it was like for a young solid-state physicist, toiling in obscurity, to discover that Bill Shockley was calling him: “It was like picking up the phone and talking to God.”


“Of all corporations’ research groups these two have been the two outstandingly profitable ones … of all corporation research groups these two have consistently attracted the most brilliant men. Why? The third fact explains the other two. Of all corporation research groups these two are precisely the two that believe in ‘idle curiosity.’”


When he happened to reflect back on the glider book many years later, for instance, he wondered if his work had done actual harm: “Because of me, did human beings build crazy gliders without benefit of engineering, and kill themselves therewith? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” He seemed less troubled by that prospect than by the poor quality of his prose.


Lucky recalls that during a phone call Pierce might suddenly hang up in the middle of his own sentence, leaving the person on the other end with the impression that a technical glitch had ended the call. No one could imagine that he would hang up on himself.


Years later, Pierce would avoid giving reporters, as well as readers of his own voluminous writings, the sense that he was calculating or unusually accomplished, sometimes offering the impression instead that his life at Caltech, and the successes that followed, were mostly serendipitous.


The money, a substantial amount in a country just emerging from the Great Depression, was ostensibly meant to reimburse him for his first-class train ticket. “Ernie, I didn’t travel first class on the train,” Elmendorf admitted. Waters looked up at Elmendorf. “If we thought you’d have gone first class,” he replied, “then we wouldn’t have hired you.”


“Too much freedom is horrible,” he would say in describing his first few months at the Labs. Indeed, he eventually came to believe that freedom in research was similar to food; it was necessary, but moderation was usually preferable to excess.


Pierce always gravitated toward the smartest people in the building,


Pierce, like Kelly, was a man of action, a man of strong opinions, and above all things a pragmatist in regard to science and innovation. Pierce, like Kelly, ran up and down staircases. He needed to get where he was going as fast as possible.


AN INSTIGATOR is different from a genius, but just as uncommon. An instigator is different, too, from the most skillful manager, someone able to wrest excellence out of people who might otherwise fall short.


“I tried to get other people to do things, I’m lazy,” Pierce once told an interviewer. “Do you think this has helped your career?” the interviewer asked. “Well, it was my career,” Pierce replied.


like a child in that, but a very mature child.”18 Pierce’s real talent, according to Friis and Pierce himself, was in getting people interested in something


Pierce’s real talent, according to Friis and Pierce himself, was in getting people interested in something that hadn’t really occurred to them before.


with a five-drawer file cabinet that he had labeled “bottom drawer,” “next-to bottom drawer,” “middle drawer,” “next-to top drawer,” and “top drawer”


“Rudi invented the traveling wave tube and I discovered it”—


Humans all suffered from a terrible habit of shoving new ideas into old paradigms. “Everyone faces the future with their eyes firmly on the past,” Pierce said, “and they don’t see what’s going to happen next.”


Some of Pierce’s writing was published under his own name; some of it, however, was done under the pseudonyms John Roberts and j.j. coupling, the latter of which he borrowed on a whim from the physics literature (a j-j coupling described the spin and orbital functions of electrons), so that he would not have to seek clearance from the Bell Labs publications department, a sometimes formidable obstacle, each time he wanted to disseminate one of his new ideas.


Pierce let Wells know that one of his science fiction concepts—an atomic bomb—was coming true: America was building one. He had deduced this from the way most of the country’s good physicists were disappearing and being directed to secret laboratories around the country.


Often Pierce’s books on technology weren’t nearly as accessible as he imagined; frequently they were disorganized and dense with mathematics.


When Kelly said something was dead, it was dead. Except to Pierce.


“Kelly was a great hero of mine,” Pierce later reflected, “and a great leader of Bell Laboratories. Even great men can be wrong.”


“It is important for the Bell Laboratories to assume a leading role in research on satellite communications. This would enable us to evaluate satellite communication technically and to exploit it expeditiously if it proves advantageous to us.”


At times the younger man would remark to Pierce, empathetically, that it must have bothered him that he didn’t get to run Echo’s day-to-day operations. “I don’t know what I said, but it certainly wasn’t the full truth,” Pierce later wrote. “The Echo ground terminal would never have got built or worked had I been the project engineer. Through a mixture of ineptitude or boredom, I would have flubbed.”


the bandleader Guy Lombardo would sometimes look at his watch and momentarily stop his orchestra’s summer evening concert. Then he would suggest that everyone in the audience pause to look up and see Echo, at one point just a curious idea, and now something more, pass overhead.


Pierce would later observe that Project Echo proceeded quickly and smoothly in part because it was considered eccentric: Few people in the business community perceived its practical importance, and as a result Pierce and his crew on Crawford Hill were largely left alone.


Telstar was not one invention but rather a synchronous use of sixteen inventions patented at the Labs over the course of twenty-five years. “None of the inventions was made specifically for space purposes,” the New York Times pointed out. On the other hand, only all of them together allowed for the deployment of an active space satellite.


Pierce was confident—one of his hallmark traits. He found it continually astonishing that a complex apparatus such as the phone system even worked, but on individual projects he rarely doubted the capability of his fellow Bell engineers


Even the collapse of the Bell System satellite business didn’t change Pierce’s views on his employer, however. As he later reflected, “I liked Bell Laboratories better than I liked satellites


In his view, it wasn’t so much that technologies were changing society; rather, a new web of instantaneous information exchanges, made possible largely by the technologies of Bell Labs, was changing society.


around the machinery so as to connect all to all. The


The “switching art,” as it was known at Bell Labs, was suitably captured by a specialized technical jargon describing relays, registers, translators, markers, and so forth and a bevy of convoluted, mind-twisting flow charts. Those who had mastered the switching art were members of a technological priesthood.


Bell Labs’ engineers had been encouraged by the public relations department to remark to journalists that ESS had the capacity “to provide services we haven’t even thought of yet.”


John Pierce—“so smart that he frightened people,”


He talked like a writer, and normal people don’t do that. His cadence, his prosody, he was an amazing speaker—but always you had no idea what he said, even as you were mesmerized by the way he said it.”


“The story Baker used to tell—not about himself, but it fitted him—was that there are two men sitting in a meeting where a man is making a presentation. And when the man finishes, one guy in the back turns to the other and says, ‘What was he talking about?’ And the other says, ‘I don’t know, he didn’t say.’


“A very small number of times in my life I’ve been in the presence of somebody who didn’t necessarily answer the question I asked. They answered the question I should have asked,”


NSA’s very existence was then considered a national secret. So Baker was organizing a committee that did not officially exist to write a top secret report about how to improve an organization that didn’t officially exist either.


The day after Javan’s team got their laser working, a team of Labs engineers used the focused beam of light to carry a telephone call.12 That sort of thing made AT&T executives actually sit up and pay attention.


failure was a large part of the job. Experiments sometimes literally exploded; results often disappointed; gut feelings frequently turned out to be indigestion.


to an innovator, being early is not necessarily different from being wrong.


Bell Labs did work on military programs. Why? Not really to make money. It was part of being invaluable.”


“We would meet,” he recalls, “the three of us, and we would grab a conference room and stand around a blackboard and draw hexagons.”


It had to do with how his former boss would advise members of Bell Labs’ technical staff when they were asked to work on something new. Whether it was a radar technology for the military or solid-state research for the phone company, Kelly did not want to begin a project by focusing on what was known. He would want to begin by focusing on what was not known.


In 1957, Moore and seven other colleagues, later nicknamed the “traitorous eight,” decided to leave Shockley’s company to form their own. Shockley felt that someone within the office was sabotaging the firm’s work. “The final straw,” Moore noted, had been when Shockley asked his entire staff to take polygraph tests.


In 1957, Moore and seven other colleagues, later nicknamed the “traitorous eight,” decided to leave Shockley’s company to form their own. Shockley felt that someone within the office was sabotaging the firm’s work. “The final straw,” Moore noted, had been when Shockley asked his entire staff to take polygraph tests.


he held an endowed chair at Stanford’s engineering school. He had already become the subject of student demonstrations. Shockley seemed to relish the attention. At the same time, it didn’t seem to detract from his abilities as an instructor. Students who were willing to take his physics class—sometimes he gave it in the living room of his own home—were fortunate to encounter one of the great college physics teachers of the twentieth century.


He decided in his seventies to declare publicly, in the Los Angeles Times, that he had donated his sperm to a project that was attempting to create a sperm bank of Nobel Prize winners. When Playboy magazine asked him about it in a lengthy interview, he defended the idea; at least to him, a sperm bank of superachievers made perfect sense. When he was asked in the interview how his own children turned out, he replied, “In terms of my own capacities, my children represent a very significant regression. My first wife—their mother—had not as high an academic achievement standing as I had.”


Shannon had never been especially interested in the everyday value of his work. He once told an interviewer, “I think you impute a little more practical purpose to my thinking than actually exists. My mind wanders around, and I conceive of different things day and night. Like a science-fiction writer, I’m thinking, ‘What if it were like this?’ or, ‘Is there an interesting problem of this type?’ … It’s usually just that I like to solve a problem, and I work on these all the time.”


Len Kleinrock, Shannon’s former student, recalls that one day at MIT, Shannon mentioned that he was making a mathematical model of the stock market. “I said, ‘Mr. Shannon, you’re interested in making money?’ ” Kleinrock recalls. “He said, ‘Why yes, aren’t you?’


he put forward a theoretical equation—(F + D)H = (V + D)N—that governed juggling’s physics. (As Shannon’s juggling friend Arthur Lewbel explains, F is the time a ball spends in the air, D is the time a ball is in a juggler’s hand, H is the number of hands, V is the time a hand is vacant, and N is the number of balls juggled.)


when Shannon was asked to speak, he grew anxious, believing he had little of value to say, and took several balls out of his pocket. And then he juggled for the crowd. Afterward, the attendees, some of the leading mathematicians and engineers in the world, lined up to get his autograph


“I don’t know how history is taught here in Japan,” he told the audience when he traveled there in 1985 to give an acceptance speech, “but in the United States in my college days, most of the time was spent on the study of political leaders and wars—Caesars, Napoleons, and Hitlers. I think this is totally wrong. The important people and events of history are the thinkers and innovators, the Darwins, Newtons, Beethovens whose work continues to grow in influence in a positive fashion.”


“no one can tell a professor what to do, on the one hand. But in any deep sense, nobody cares what he’s doing, either.”


Pierce helped invent a scale, known as the Bohlen-Pierce scale, that was not built upon a standard octave but a different arrangement of thirteen ascending tones. It was a characteristically complex endeavor, and his efforts to explain it were laced with technical jargon about the scale’s frequency ratios.36 A composer and friend of Pierce’s described its musical effect more directly, in words that almost seemed to describe Pierce himself. Pierce’s scale, the friend said, has “ear-catching dissonances [and] warm and pure consonances.” But music tends to resist easy description. The experience of listening to compositions written in the scale—easily done through an Internet search—can be Pierce-like, too: quirky, ethereal, intriguing. You are certain you’re not listening to anything you’ve heard before.


The old world was already gone, he explained, it was just that most people hadn’t yet noticed.


“One immediate problem for which no amount of corporate bulk can compensate is the firm’s lack of marketing expertise,” one journalist, Christopher Byron of Time, noted. It was a wise point. Bell Labs and AT&T had “never really had to sell anything.”3 And when they had tried—as was the case with the Picturephone—they failed. Government regulation, as AT&T had learned, could be immensely difficult to manage and comply with. But markets, they would soon discover, were simply brutal. AT&T’s leaders, such as CEO Charlie Brown, “had never had the experience or the training to compete,”


“Unfettered research,” as Odlyzko termed it, was no longer a logical or necessary investment for a company. For one thing, it took far too long for an actual breakthrough to pay off as a commercial innovation—if it ever did. For another, the base of science was now so broad, thanks to work in academia as well as old industrial laboratories such as Bell Labs, that a company could profit merely by pursuing an incremental strategy rather than a game-changing discovery or invention


“science and technology is now a production line. If you want a new idea, you hire some people, give them a budget, and have fairly good odds of getting what you asked for. It’s like building refrigerators.”


the remaining employees—at the company whose engineers perfected the telephone—were asked to limit their calls at work.


(Intel, moreover, manufactures about 10 billion transistors every second.)


Jeong Kim, the most recent president of Bell Labs, has suggested that the future of communications will be defined by an industry yet to be created—not the kind of business that simply delivers or searches out information, but one that manages the tide of information so that it doesn’t drown us.


“The only really important thing about communication is how well it serves man,”


“While only four percent of the [U.S.] work force is composed of scientists and engineers,” the National Academy report points out, “this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.”


A corollary to his vision was that size and employee numbers were not the only crucial aspect. A large group of physicists, certainly, created a healthy flow of ideas. But Kelly believed the most valuable ideas arose when the large group of physicists bumped against other departments and disciplines, too.


“It’s the interaction between fundamental science and applied science, and the interface between many disciplines, that creates new ideas,”


John Pierce did not flatter himself so much as to think that success in basic or applied research—those big leaps in scientific knowledge—were necessarily more heroic than development. “You see, out of fourteen people in the Bell Laboratories,” he once remarked, “only one is in the Research Department, and that’s because pursuing an idea takes, I presume, fourteen times as much effort as having it.”


Pierce wasn’t about managing people. Pierce was about managing ideas.


“Pierce did not let people get in the way of his pursuit of ideas,” Mayo adds. “He did not compromise because it would make people feel good. He did his thing because he felt it was necessary to accomplish the development of ideas the way he wanted.


the progress of business now, Mayo adds, is to become accustomed to watching successful technology companies offer new engineers rich incentives for their work. Pierce and Bell Labs couldn’t do that because they were funded like a public utility. But they also couldn’t do that because it chafed against their belief in how innovations arise. “Incentives are fine,” Mayo says, “but they produce incremental improvements in what’s there. That’s not what Pierce was about.”


“CAN WE LEARN SOMETHING FROM THE EXAMPLE OF BELL LABS?” John Pierce asked, in all capital letters,


Back in the 1940s and 1950s, moreover, smart and talented graduate students could never be wooed away from the Labs by the prospect of making millions. It wasn’t even thinkable. You were in it for the adventure.


What about Bell Labs’ formula was timeless?


In his 1997 list, he thought it boiled down to four things: A technically competent management all the way to the top. Researchers didn’t have to raise funds. Research on a topic or system could be and was supported for years. Research could be terminated without damning the researcher


It is now received wisdom that innovation and competitiveness are closely linked. Companies that are good at innovating are good at competing in the market; the uncompromising nature of the market, in turn, is a powerful force on companies to innovate. But Bell Labs’ history demonstrates that the truth is actually far more complicated.


in regard to innovation, capitalism is more deeply intertwined with government than many of us realize. There may be one other observation


in regard to innovation, capitalism is more deeply intertwined with government than many of us realize.


“We learned that the impossible is not impossible. We learned that if you think you can do something you may very well be able to do one thousand times better once you understand what’s going on.”


If we marched all the people out and destroyed the buildings and the equipment and the records, would Bell Laboratories be destroyed? Bown’s answer was no, it would not. On the other hand, he would say that if the buildings, equipment, and records remained intact but the people were removed, Bell Laboratories would be destroyed.


In Lucky’s view, a list of Bell Labs’ exemplars captures the essence of the organization. “They set the examples that permeated the whole place. They created the fame and were what other people aspired to be. They were the leaders, even if they weren’t high up in management.


To him, the essence of Bell Labs was its immense and complete institutional capabilities—how it could develop anything from the tiniest element of a small electronic device to the grand plan for a national network; also, how it could develop people, turning callow college graduates into competent researchers


“However nostalgic I may be about the world of my childhood, it is gone, and so are the sorts of people who lived in it. Science and technology destroyed that world and replaced it with another.”


is clear that we build for the day and not for the ages, and what we build has a community and functional rather than an individual character.”