Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

I read The Idea Factory by John Gertner on

Review

The Idea Factory filled me with pride for my home state of New Jersey, ambition to work on harder problems, and a lot of questions around what creates innovation. If you have even a passing interest in early transistor and communications technology, it’s a lot of fun.

A lot of the personalities involved are wonderful to read about - Claude Shannon, split between inventing information theory and a deep love of juggling, for instance. Bill Shockley’s brilliance and horrible descent into racism. Even folks like Theodore Vail, an executive with what seems like genuine vision.

Some of my interest in this book was driven by the current agglomeration in tech: companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have grown to a scale where they have vast research divisions, are in danger of anti-monopoly action, and, like Bell Labs, have deep connections to the American war efforts. When I read about how Bell Labs invested in war efforts, and according to Ian Ross:

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

And so I was a little disappointed when this comparison, in the final chapter, occupies all of two pages and is quickly dismissed because modern monopolies don’t sprinkle the results freely and are too focused on shareholder value.

But that’s a small, and personal, critique. Overall, it’s a fascinating book, and many of the observations about how Bell nurtured new ideas - having technical managers, accepting failures, promoting basic research - all apply today. Especially the idea that innovation is about understanding principles really resonates with me.

I’d love to read a ‘Chapter 2’ that dives into the computational side of Bell Labs - those innovations, like the C programming language, Unix, and Plan 9 operating systems - have a similarly enormous legacy, and aren’t really discussed in The Idea Factory. I’ll read that book when I find it.

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