Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

By Jon Gertner Penguin Press. 422 pp. $29.95

Before Google X, NASA and the Manhattan Project, there was Bell Labs: AT&T’s research facility where smart dudes with Brylcreemed hair, horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors figured stuff out.

’The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’ by Jon Gertner (The Penguin Press)

“Should we care about how new ideas begin?” Jon Gertner asks in “The Idea Factory,” a history of how a private telephone company used profits from its government-sanctioned monopoly to fund the lab that invented modern communications. “The techniques forged at Bell Labs — that knack for apprehending a vexing problem, gathering ideas that might lead to a solution, and then pushing toward the development of a product that could be deployed on a massive scale — are still worth considering today.”

Gertner’s book is a paean to the unheralded men — yes, mostly men — behind this bygone age of innovation. A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine who grew up “a few hundred yards” from one of Bell Labs’ lush Garden State campuses, he details the products that Bell’s eccentric in-house geniuses developed in the 20th century, including vacuum tubes, cellphones and satellites. “The Idea Factory” praises sizable but cloistered workshops where brainiacs can experiment without worrying about university politics, shareholders or the bottom line.

“Some contemporary thinkers would lead us to believe that twenty-first century innovation can only be accomplished by small groups of nimble, profit seeking entrepreneurs working amid the frenzy of market competition,” Gertner writes. “To consider what occurred at Bell Labs . . . is to consider the possibilities of what large human organizations might accomplish.”

Founded in 1925, Bell Labs worked on the telephone, perfecting what its engineers thought was “the most complex machine ever created” — a network for sending the sound of the human voice around the world. This meant more than just stringing wire across continents. AT&T designed the devices and the switching systems, then invented ways to transmit documents, radio and mobile calls. Not everything was a hit — the Picturephone, a primitive version of video chat developed in the mid-1960s, never caught on. But even when Bell inventions failed, the way its researchers thought about technology paid huge dividends.

“One shouldn’t necessarily think of information in terms of meaning,” Gertner writes of Claude Shannon’s signature discovery, information theory. “Rather, one might think of it in terms of its ability to resolve uncertainty.” Shannon, a Bell cryptographer obsessed with unicycles and juggling, was the first to explain that information could be relayed in binary bits — that is, in ones and zeros. This discovery is the basis of digital communication and the Internet.

After AT&T was broken up in the early 1980s, Bell Labs languished. While Gertner avoids tough questions about the company’s classified defense work and whether its monopoly was justified, “The Idea Factory” reminds us that innovation can mean more than Google Glasses.

Justin Moyer