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The Idea Factory

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


In writing about George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe last weekend, I mentioned that my earlier resistance to reading it was weakened by Marc Levinson’s WSJ survey of the best business books of 2012. As I explained, I had enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger and trusted him as a guide. However, as I also noted, Levinson confused matters by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Moreover, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012, having reviewed it last March. She wrote then:

In “The Idea Factory,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.


Mr. Gertner’s portraits of … talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.

I’m just over 200 pages into the book now. It’s an exciting story. I’m especially enjoying the “spirited portraits” of these intellectual giants: Claude Shannon, William Shockley, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, John Pierce. The wonderful anecdotes make me wish for more.

What I also wish for more of is the science and the math. I realize this isn’t a technical book, but I think there would have been room for Gertner to expand on his treatment of the physics and chemistry of transistors, or the mathematics of information theory, without offending the reader. I’m departing here from Kakutani, who admires his ability “to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible.” As the daughter of a famous mathematician, she surely has a sense of what mathematical comprehensibility looks like. And Gertner is eminently comprehensible, as far as he goes. I just think he could have pushed on a little further, especially with Shannon. What are error correcting codes? A single example would have made all the difference in revealing what the subject is about.

Well, it’s Gertner’s book to write, not mine. He had to make decisions about its focus and its level, which he did. I’m grateful for the result.

Categories: Books, History, Technology
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